Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why Dream House Makes a Great Book Club Recommendation

The following is a letter I wrote, talking up Valerie Laken's Dream House in paperback, which I think is a great book for book clubs. Valerie is going to be my special guest at our first book club night on Wednesday, March 24th, at 7 PM. I'm convinced enough that this is a great book club book that I took the liberty of writing a letter promoting it, which I passed on to our great rep Cathy at HarperCollins, to do with as she wished. But why not share my thoughts on a grander canvas...

When I moved to Milwaukee many years ago, my first apartment was a studio in a grand old building called The Blackstone. I’d settled in pretty well, unfazed by the lack of stove or kitchen sink. Laurie Colwin washed her dishes in the bathroom, as chronicled in Home Cooking; why couldn’t I? And for such a small apartment, it had such a nice-sized tub, perfect for relaxing after a long day on my feet, selling books.

I befriended a tenant down the hall, a young woman who did promotion for a local record store, Radio Doctors. One day we were hanging out together, and the conversation turned to the man who lived there before me. “Poor Joe,” my new friend sighed, “What a good guy. He died in the bathtub, you know.”

Well, that’s nothing compared to the premise of Dream House. What if the house you bought turned out to be the scene of a murder? That’s the situation Kate finds herself in when she and Stuart impulsively purchase an old fixer-upper in Ann Arbor.

Needless to say, it puts a bit of a strain on the marriage. And Kate’s already got issues with her own family (coincidentally, they work in construction), and can’t understand why she hasn’t followed their lead and invested in new construction in the suburbs.

The story is told through Kate’s perspective, her husband Stuart, and Jay, one of the other teachers at Kate’s high school, who also has a link to Kate’s house. Oh, and did I mention the story is also Walker’s, the man who just got out of jail for committing the crime?

In many ways, the story reminds me a bit of House of Sand and Fog. Laken does a wonderful job jumping getting the reader to empathize with characters that are strongly at odds. She captures the pressures and stresses of family and relationships, and how that combustible energy can be bottled up in houses.

I’m always looking for great book club books. If you have any sort of program, I’m sure you are too. I’m looking for that sweet spot, the book that appeals to your types that are interested in theme and character, demand great writing, and want a good story as well.

I think Dream House is a book that has all those things. It’s edited by Claire Wachtel, the guiding light behind many wonderful authors like Manette Ansay, Jennifer Haigh and Thrity Umgrigar. Just to switch things up a bit, she also edits Dennis Lehane. You can also see the influence of Charles Baxter, one of Laken’s mentors, in her writing.

Here’s hoping that you pick up Dream House and find yourself recommending it your friends at other book clubs too. And here’s really hoping that some of them come back and thank you afterwards.

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