Book Report: The Hundred-Year House

the hundred year house

What’s The Buzz?: Rebecca Makkai certainly hit the literary scene with a bang a few years ago when her debut novel, The Borrowers, won acclaim from the likes of O Magazine and Chicago Magazine. Now Makkai is back with another unique story (her first novel centered around a renegade child kidnaps / is kidnapped by a young librarian and taken on a spirited road trip), this time set in the suburbs of Chicago, called The Hundred-Year House.

What’s The Plot?: The entire story can quite literally be summed up by its title in some ways. The Hundred-Year House centers around a grand estate owned by the aristocratic Ontarian Devohr family, called Laurelfield, over the 100 years of its existence – from 1999 through to the turn of the previous century, 1900. Interestingly though, the story is told in reverse chronological order, in three separate sections (as well as a brief prologue at the very end that speaks to the original owner’s plans to build his wife a grand, if secluded, home).

In the near-present, we’re wrapped up in the lives of Doug and Zilla, a married scholarly couple that is living in the old coach house on the Laurelfield Estate, where Zilla’s haughty mother Gracie is still ruling the roost. Doug is supposed to be writing a book on the life of an underrated poet named Edwin Parfitt, but he’s distracted – by a ghostwriting gig, by the presence of his stepbrother-in-law’s artist wife Miriam, by his mother-in-law’s unrelenting denial of Doug’s access to the files on the estate when it was once a renowned artists’ colony for a period of about 30 years (including visits from the poet Parfitt). By the end of the story, Doug’s search for answers leads him to unlock some unbelievable secrets, ones that another character remarks to him they’ll simply ‘never know whether they’re true.” Only the reader, lucky you,will. Because those secrets have to do with Laurelfield’s past, which we then dive into.

First, back to the 1950’s, when a young Grace Devohr moves into the estate with her boorish husband, after finally reclaiming it from the artists that presided over it for the last 30 years. From there, back to 1929, when Doug’s subject matter Edwin Parfitt stalked the grounds alongside dozens of other artists. The story essentially functions as a neat little nesting doll; somewhat throwaway or oblique happenings and characters mentioned in the opening, 1999 section only make sense as new light is cast on them as you make your way through the story. In fact, I found myself surprised again and again and again as I got through the book, not seeing virtually any of the curveballs tossed the reader’s way, but pleasantly delighted by them.

Beach Read Potential?: Although The Hundred-Year House is a little cerebral and literary – many of its main characters are scholars or artists after all – there is something absolutely delightful and delicious about it that made it a snap for me to tear through pretty quickly. I think the thing that impressed me most is I really had no idea the story was going to unspool itself the way it did, in this interconnected narrative filled with callbacks and reveals. If you go into it with that mindset – to pay attention to the first section (which is quite surprising and full of intrigue on its own) because it’ll factor into the later sections – then you’ll probably rip through it that much more speedily.

Historical Accuracy?: Another impressive component of The Hundred-Year House is the fact none of it is real. Unlike some novels that take real events and wind them into a fictional setting (like Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things) everything here is straight up fiction. Yet something about the writing makes it all feel very real. And if you’re not particularly artistically minded – no worries. While a few poems are slipped into the book’s opening section (their origin of which is basically explained by the end) the bulk of the story centers on people who are at an arm’s length from the creative history of Laurelfield. Even the section that takes place during the artist colony heydays is more about this ragtag band of delinquents, and less about the actual work they’re producing (although amusingly in a few spots, said work ties into what we discover in the future – it’s cool, trust me).

Who Should Read This Book?: The Hundred-Year House reminded me of a few stories I’ve quite enjoyed over the years. If you’ve read David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, the nesting doll format won’t be totally unfamiliar to you – it’s just a much stronger plot device in this case as the stories literally hinge on one another (as opposed to being loosely connected as in that book). Another good example would be Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, one of my favourite reads of the previous year that retells a story over and over again, building off of the knowledge the reader gains in each subsequent telling (as well as our present day knowledge of the time period the story takes place in). And the press people that are hyping this tale have compared it to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I haven’t read, but it’s Atwood, so really, how can you go wrong?

Altogether this book was a surprise to me – both in terms of how much I enjoyed it and how the story itself was structured and unfolded. I strongly recommend you surprise someone in your life with it as a gift (and borrow it afterward). The Hundred-Year House is available from booksellers nationwide starting now, for a retail price of $31. Happy reading – especially for a lucky reader of this blog that’s going to be walking away with a copy of the book. Want to dig in? Here’s how to enter:

1) Tell me in the comments below by September 7, 2014 – Why are you keen on reading The Hundred-Year House?

2) Entries are limited to one per person / per email address / per household (or more if you score bonus entries). A random draw will be conducted on or around September 8, 2014 to select the winner(s), who will have 48 hours to respond before another winner is chosen in their place.

3) Entries are limited to Canadians that have reached the age of majority in their province. Quebec is not eligible for this promotion.

4) Bonus Entry: Follow Penguin Canada on Twitter, tag them and me (@cdngiftguide) in a Tweet about why you’re keen on reading this twisty turny novel. Post a link to your Tweet below to earn yourself an extra entry into the draw.

5) Bonus Entry #2: Add this book to your to-read list on GoodReads, and leave a link back to the page it’s on below to earn yourself another bonus entry.

45 Responses to “Book Report: The Hundred-Year House”
  1. janicour says:

    The Hundred-Year House is a puzzle, a plunge into a world of fascinating characters, and an examination of human relationships. It is not to be missed.”Can’t wait to read it!!

  2. janicour says:

  3. katydidit21 says:

    I like historical novels and it sounds like an interesting and intricate puzzle. I would love to read it.

  4. Joan G. says:

    I want to read this book because I love a book where I get surprized by the storyline.

  5. kittypride says:

    Sounds like a book that takes the reader on a wonderful journey, I would really like to read The Hundred Year House.

  6. neednewspace says:

    Oooh! The Hundred-Year House sounds like a good read! I’m always on the lookout for something new and different and this sounds like nothing I’ve ever read. I did read “Life After Life” and I think I may have been in the minority on that one. I just didn’t like it all that much. But I’ll definitely be adding this one to my TBR list! Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. LINDA says:

    I love the air of mystery around the setting and the characters in this book-sounds fascinating.

  8. I’ve always lived in quirky old (almost) hundred-year houses and love historical fiction as well – sounds like a fun read!

  9. Susan says:

    i love reading new books and new (to me) authors!

  10. Hannah says:

    I loved Life After Life so if this is in th esame vein I’d be keen to read it too

  11. Audrey Skinner says:

    I have not read anything by this author but am keen to do so. This fictional story sounds intriguing.

  12. George Meek says:

    My wife read 24/7 and I’m sure she would welcome reading it…

  13. Evan says:

    The appeal is that it’s fictional … but comes across as very real & believable, as noted in write-up above. Sounds good. Thanks!

  14. aarone m. says:

    I want to win because it looks like an interesting read.

  15. GARRY S says:


  16. Anne Derkat says:

    Sounds like something I would enjoy reading and then I would pass it on to a friend who enjoys the same books that I do.

  17. cathy says:

    sounds like a great read. We have an old house in our family I’m sure it has lots of stories, some we know, some the house will always keep secret

  18. Sheelagh Russell-Brown says:

    I live in a 150-year old house and have always been fascinated to think about its history.

  19. Sandi Tymchuk says:

    I would like to read the story–history is interesting to me lately.

  20. Susan T. says:

    I love that the constant character in this book is the house. The tease about dark family secrets has totally hooked me!

  21. CLC says:

    The novel structure sounds interesting, as do the characters.

  22. andrea4444 says:

    This sounds like something different which is always good! Reminds me of Six Feet Under and Call the Mid Wife.

  23. beach650 says:

    I really enjoyed Life after Life and I’m a sucker for books that span long time periods – will keep my eye out for this title!

  24. Pam says:

    I am keen on reading The Hundred-Year House because I like that idea that it follows the inhabitants of the house for a long time.

  25. Pam says:

  26. Jeannie says:

    I love a good book that keeps you guessing and The Hundred Year House looks like a real page turner! I can’t wait to read it and I’m hoping I win!

  27. beewbedard says:

    it sounds like a good book but with a twist

  28. Angela Mitchell says:

    I’d love to read this book. It sounds unique, interesting, and I like that I don’t know where the story is going.

  29. ikkinlala says:

    I’d like to read The Hundred-Year House because I recently read The Borrower and enjoyed it.

  30. cookie3 says:

    I’ve always been interested in old houses & have wondered what it would be like to hear about the various owners & what they were like. Sounds like an interesting read to me.

  31. Athena says:

    It seems like it would be an engrossing read

  32. Elaan says:

    I would love to read this book because I used to live in a turn-of-the-century home and it sounds fascinating!

  33. Elaan says:

  34. Elaan says:

    I would love to read The Hundred Year House @CdnGiftGuide @PenguinCanada because I used to live in a turn-of-the-century home!— Merely A. Madness (@merelyamadness) September 3, 2014

  35. Aimee says:

    Great reviews on this book

  36. Lori P says:

    The plot of this book seems to present itself as an Agatha Christie-esque puzzle waiting to be solved, centered across time in a single location, rather than over a few days in a closed village. Sounds interesting & intriguing!

  37. linnett says:

    would love to read this, looks like a great page turner to read in front of the fire place this winter

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