The Carriage House
- Louisa Hall
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by David Bruce Smith
- April 4, 2013
Rescuing a symbol of a family’s storied past is the key to familial reparation in this debut novel.
It is possible, in some instances, to patch up a falling-apart family. Even along the wealthy cul-de-sac of Little Lane in Louisa Hall’s novel, The Carriage House, where back-fence defamation and finessing for A Social Place are almost universal.
In this, Hall’s debut work of fiction, William Adair is an architect of stature from yesteryear. Uncomfortable about his declining occupational status, he has lately been reviewed by the neighbors through the long-ago accomplishments of his three daughters, all of whom were tennis champions. But those times of triumph have passed as well, placing the patina of the Adair name in suspicious suspension.
When the oldest, Diana, returns for a visit and a match, William, sitting in the stands, suddenly has a stroke. The girls gather to care for their father, but the path to recovery is unexpected and prickly. Hall laces this obstacle with a medical complication: William loses his sense of smell and, as a result, anger and honesty crescendo and compress over the summer season.
At the hospital, William informs his children he now sees them differently — without idealism:
“‘I’ve had to think about whether to say anything at all, because I know what I’m going to say will be hurtful’ … He paused to collect himself before continuing, ‘The truth is, I’m disappointed in you. You’ve disappointed me … You should know that the two of you — Isabelle and Diana — have broken my heart. You had all the potential in the world. You could have been so much …’ Elizabeth absolved, flushed. ... She had done no better than her sisters … Her only triumph had been that of bringing her children back home so that William could think of them as his own.”
From William’s point of view, his perceptions are credible; for Hall, this commences the zigzag to familial reparation.
Diana is the oldest with the most notable athletic pedigree, but she arrives dishonestly. Fashioning a front of concern following her father’s stroke, she is also there, in part, because of a marriage about to end and a deserted doctorate degree in architecture. Elizabeth, formerly an actress of promise, particularly in commercials, has mismanaged the supervision of her life and career. At 18, Isabelle has been practically passed over because of her parents’ mutually exclusive preoccupations: William’s slow spiral into disillusionment and their mother Margaux’s gradual cerebral strangulation from the thickening haze of dementia.
The family’s symbol of salvation is the carriage house, built by William’s grandfather decades ago. Formerly it was regarded as an architectural gem, a masterpiece alongside his other artistic achievements: a sanctuary of sweet memories and romantic interludes among the generations. Now it has decayed from weather, age and neglect.
During the intervening years of unintended abandonment, the contours of Little Lane also shifted; in the process, a zoning error occurred and the Adairs’ carriage house was commandeered by a neighbor. The building now overflows with rodents, and others — Anita Schmidt, Jack Weld and Mrs. Cheshire — have fevered up their desires to flatten it.
But when William’s pre-Margaux love and friend, Adelia Lively, reappears, she moves into William’s home at his request and takes charge, even though Margaux is in residence. She cooks up a scheme to rescue the carriage house. When the wrecking crew shows, Adelia, from an upstairs window, ambushes the coterie with rocks, stuns them into a retreat, genies up her formidable attorney acumen and stalls demolition. Simultaneously, neighbors are called upon — gingerly — and a dinner party is hastily assembled by the Adairs to annex unanimous endorsement of their strategy.
“And now it was going to be demolished unless Adelia’s wild scheme to move it could work. The desire to succeed in the relocation flooded [Diana]. She did not want to lose this place. If they could get it onto the Adair property, a renovation would work. She could even help. The structure could be saved, the materials preserved. The idea animated her … ‘We’re going to get that house back,’ Di said, as though to offer strength. Adelia straightened some … ‘Yes … Yes, we will … We’ll get it back, sweet Di.’”
The stasis among the Adairs and the standoff with the block are eventually neutralized when the family relocates to the beach. Diana, commuting between the two places, transfers the carriage house to their property and renovates it — and her relationship with William. Elizabeth joins an experimental theatre group, which pleases William, and Isabelle, recovering from an automobile accident, decides to attend Princeton, another of William’s paternal wishes. Adele’s presence recedes and William “reunites” with Margaux — asymmetrically.
When the carriage house job is completed, familial relationships are restored to equanimity. And, within the microcosm Hall has deftly designed, she shows that Big Things — of measure — can actually arise from Little Lane.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books. His latest, for children, is American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.