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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: The Red House

Yesterday the BPL Book Club met to discuss The Red House by Mark Haddon.  From the publisher:

The set-up of Mark Haddon's brilliant new novel is simple: Richard, a wealthy doctor, invites his estranged sister Angela and her family to join his for a week at a vacation home in the English countryside. Richard has just re-married and inherited a willful stepdaughter in the process; Angela has a feckless husband and three children who sometimes seem alien to her. The stage is set for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.
But because of Haddon's extraordinary narrative technique, the stories of these eight people are anything but simple. Told through the alternating viewpoints of each character, The Red Housebecomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding up to a portrait of contemporary family life that is bittersweet, comic, and deeply felt. As we come to know each character they become profoundly real to us. We understand them, even as we come to realize they will never fully understand each other, which is the tragicomedy of every family.
On a personal note, this was my second time reading the book.  Here is the link to my initial review of the book back in 2012.

I also book talked this one in Book Lover’s Club in July 2012, saying:
This is the newest novel by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Here Haddon imagines an estranged family: 2 grown siblings and their spouses and kids renting a house in the Welsh countryside for 7 days.  Instead of chapters the novel is divided into the days of the vacation.  Within each day the point of view skips around to every character.  The changes in point of view can be jarring since they are not marked in any way; the point of view will simply change after a small break in the text. The minor confusion that occurs as a result is worth it, as you get to see everything from each character's point of view.  These are troubled people, but they are all troubled in a different way.  When thrown together, there are trials and tribulations, but also moments of revelation and joy.  The family vacation will leave permanent scars on the group, but it will also bring them all closer together.  This is a great read if you are preparing for an extended family gathering.
Now on to our discussion:

  • Because this book is written in an odd style with stream of consciousness, lots of inner monologues, and frequent shifts in the POV, I was worried about how the initial vote would go, but interestingly it was an equal split with 3 likes, 4 dislikes, and 3 so-so.  Comments from the start were all over the place, but here are a few:
    • I did not like reading this book, but the writing was extraordinary.  I loved it for that alone.
    • I voted so-so because the character development was excellent but the plot and writing style drove me crazy.
    • I voted dislike because I couldn’t even finish it. It was too confusing to me that I could not focus.  I was reading the words, but I was not absorbing anything.
    • Without book club, I wouldn’t have read it.
    • It took me a while to get into how he wrote it.
    • I liked it a lot.  I liked that I could see what was going on in everyone’s head.  This made me like each person at one point or another.  Even when I later hated them, I could remember being in his or her head and liking that person.
  • That brings up the inner monologue as Haddon’s major plot device here.  The inner monologues, not the action, are what propel the story. Did that work for you as a reader?
    • I loved Beloved and Ulysses and those both use the inner monologue to move the story.  I liked how Haddon used the inner monologue but it was in other places where I thought he tried too hard to add drama.
    • Benji’s inner monologue was just perfect.  It completely captured the way a little boy’s brain works.
    • I thought all the inner monologues were a bit much...TMI [too much information]. I didn’t need to know everything they were thinking.
    • But, for all we did know, I felt like there was so much I didn’t know.  There were hints of all the information that was being left out.
    • Also, it was TMI for the reader, but it was interesting because only we knew it.  The other characters were not privy to these thoughts.
    • Without the inner monologues, we don’t see much change in the characters, but with it everyone is changed as a result of the story.
  • Let’s talk about Angela and Richard, their relationship as siblings, and them as characters.
    • The issues of caring for an ailing parent rang true to me.  She then shared her own personal story of caring for her sick mother while her brother was living far away.
    • We talked a bit about how siblings can have a completely different remembrance of their shared history.
    • This led us to a larger discussion of how things are remembered.  Angela and Richard can’t remember the same things from their past the same way, so then how will this vacation be remembered differently by all involved.  That is cool.  So meta too.
    • In case you missed this point, Haddon drives it home at the end when he has Louisa see a small plane with its engine on fire on her drive home, but Haddon tells us she will remember forever that she saw it at the red house.
  • The titular house is described on page 19.  Someone read the description. [ed note, I loved how the hard cover and paperback were laid out so that the page numbers matched up.] As someone said, we should have known that some stressed and disturbing things were bound to happen in a house with the history of this one.
  • We looked at page 131 as a group  It is almost an entire page of free associations that are disconnected from each others.  This happens right as “Monday” is ending.  They turned to me, the leader, to explain what was happening there.  I ventured that Haddon was trying to recreate all of the independent and separate thoughts running through the heads of the 8 people in the house as they were winding down for the night.
  • Questions: Have you ever been on a vacation like this?
    • Yes.  This is universal
    • Oh, and the “crap store,” everyone stops there on vacation.
    • The effort to share cooking.  I related to that.
    • Haddon captures the forced togetherness.
    • He is right that some people go on excursions and some stay behind.
  • Question: What is the role of death and absence in this novel?
    • The entire set up is based on those 2 things.
    • I saw Angela throwing the doll into the fire at the end as her exorcising her ghosts.
    • Angela never had a chance to heal over the death of her baby.  All being together made Karen’s absence worse.
    • But why so upset about Karen now, 18 years later? Angela is is surprised by the intensity of her emotion too.
    • Maybe it was because she was so upset about her mom’s death recently, and still upset about her dad’s death years before.
    • Also, Angela was very worried about losing her mind like her mother.
    • Absence:  When they all get to the house their outside life is absent, but it intrudes slowly on the story of their vacation as the book goes on.
    • Speaking of, there is no plot here.  But, someone asked, do most relaxation vacations have a plot? No.  So why are we expecting one in a book about it.
  • Richard:
    • He is an easy villain at the start, but we learn very quickly that it is much more complicated than that.
    • I loved the scene where he takes the long run.  I felt like I learned so much about who Richard really was then.
    • I liked it up until he falls and almost dies of hypothermia.  I fond that to be a stretch.
    • In general, I think I always stereotype characters at the start of a book.  Haddon wants me to and then he turns everything on its head.  This is an uncomfortable feeling.  The entire book is very frank and uncomfortable, but that is how life is if you are truly living.
  • Question: Which character of you most identify with?
    • Alex because he loved nature so much
    • Benji.  Maybe not identified but understood him the best because I have a young son.
    • Overall, I identified most with Angela, but there were times when I knew she was VERY different from me.
    • Louisa because she did her best to make the vacation work even though she is the least connected to the group
    • I liked how on the last night she had to break the salmon to cook it and then reconstruct it [and it looked perfectly whole] to serve it. That was so symbolic of what she was to the group.
    • I felt like Richard and Louisa as a couple were very real.  Their issues and how they worked them out were realistic.
    • Although I didn’t really like Dominic, I felt like he was an excellent Dad. He wanted to be a good husband, was trying.
  • Question: What does the future hold for these people?
    • We all thought that Dom would try to give up his affair with Amy, but we were worried that she will not make it easy and will probably expose their affair.  Also, someone said while he might end it with Amy, she thought he would eventually stray again.
    • As a group, we felt that Angela was on her way toward healing.  Burning the doll was a big step.
    • I don’t think anyone is going to change! They changed while they were at the red house in relation to one and other, but I doubt it will stick.  True change takes a lot of work and a long time; these people are too self absorbed to experience real change.
    • The entire book is a critique of how narcissistic our society has become.
    • I think the key to the future is in Louisa’s hands.  If Louisa can bring them all together again, they will all be the better for it.  But, Haddon has the specters of disaster on Louisa’s horizon: Richard’s lawsuit and Melissa’s school problems, so she could easily get side tracked.
    • I think Benji could bring them together.  He wrote the note for the whole group in the guest book.  That is a sign that he can be the lynchpin.
    • The friendship that Louisa and Daisy seemed to strike up felt real and gives me hope for this group.
  • Question: Final comments
    • The word choices in this book were amazing and beautiful.  I wrote a few down.  When describing the train it “unzips the land,” or the swallows overhead were like “pairs of scissors.”
  • Words to describe this book:
    • disjointed
    • multiple monologues
    • psychological
    • broken to healing
    • problems
    • TMI
    • difficult
    • confusing
    • a bit over reaching
Readlikes:  Here is what I had to suggest the first time I read The Red House:
Although there are no vacations in it The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is similar to The Red Housein that both are moving, character centered stories that deal with family secrets. They also build to dramatic, but not tragic finales.  Click here to see my post from when the BPL book discussion group read Bender's novel.
Like The Red HouseSeating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead also came out this summer.  Here the setting is a family wedding in New England.  If you liked the family drama parts of The Red House, this would be a good suggestion. 
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby is also an adult book for young adults option, that is quite dramatic (four strangers find themselves on a roof top on New Year's Eve and all plan to jump) and told in multiple points of view.
During the discussion the group also had a few suggestions.  As I mentioned above, a few other classic works of literature with inner monologues might work too.  Another participant also pointed out that this book reminded her of the movie The Big Chill, but she liked that movie and not this book.  As a group we deduced that while both stories are about people coming together because of the death of someone they all loved, the author’s purpose is completely different in each.  The movie is about celebration a life, while this book is about the failed connections of family.

Speaking of dysfunctional families, that is a key appeal factor here.  Some good options that in and of themselves hit a wide range of other areas of appeal are:


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