The History of Us
- Leah Stewart
- Simon & Schuster
- 367 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- February 4, 2013
A novel exploring the delicate dilemmas of family life, and how our roots both clip our wings and sustain us.
“A happy ending isn’t really the end, it’s just the place you choose to stop telling the story,” novelist Leah Stewart wrote in her second novel, The Myth of You and Me. In this new work, The History of Us, she sets herself the task of choosing to start telling the story with an unhappy ending. Played out on a specific geographic and community stage, Stewart’s fourth novel explores familiar, universal territory: the paradoxical support and constraint afforded by home and kin, the way roots both sustain us and clip our wings, the manner in which houses both shelter and burden us.
Stewart knows her way around rust-belt Cincinnati and gentle, melancholy families. Who we are, individually and in relation to each other, and where we live (or “identity and location” as one of Stewart’s characters says) comprise the dual themes of The History of Us. Stewart immediately reveals her twinned theme with two epigraphs. The first quotes a local newspaper’s 1819 homage to Cincinnati, “the fair Queen of the West.” The second is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “‘Why has he not done more?’ said Dorothea, interested now in all who had slipped below their own intention.”
The book begins in its moment of most extremity, the transformative crisis in the life of then 29-year-old Eloise Hempel: single, proud possessor of a newly minted Ph.D. in history and a teaching position at Harvard. Eloise receives a phone call from her 11-year-old niece, Theodora, eldest of her sister Rachel’s three children. Rachel and her husband have been killed in a helicopter crash; the children are with Eloise’s mother Francine who has taken to her bed. “Somebody has to look after Josh and Claire,” serious, responsible Theo says. And serious, responsible Eloise dutifully assumes guardianship of Theo, nine-year-old Josh, and two-year-old Claire. She returns to Cincinnati, to her childhood home, a rambling Victorian on Clifton Avenue with an ornate door that does not keep out the cold and a grand staircase she knew so well that “even after all these years living elsewhere she knew where to step so the stairs wouldn’t creak.”
After the tragedy sets the story in motion, Stewart flashes forward 16 years to the present day life of this accidental family. All still live together on Clifton Avenue; no one is in a committed relationship with a significant other. All struggle with professional uncertainty. Eloise, now 45, forfeited Harvard, teaches history at a local college, and is involved in a secret relationship; 28-year-old Theo procrastinates over her Ph.D. dissertation “about location and identity” and pines for one of Eloise’s colleagues; 26- year old Josh, in retreat from a bad break up and modest fame and success as an indie rock musician, works as a marketer. Nineteen-year-old Claire, the family baby, has accepted an invitation to join a ballet company in New York and appears about to fly the family nest and escape the magnetic force field of the house on Clifton Avenue.
Stewart alternates between Eloise’s, Theo’s, and Josh’s points of view. A similar sensibility of regret, uncertainty, underachievement and defeat characterizes the outlook of all three narrators. Although this homogeneity may reflect an authorial decision to underscore their familial bonds of genetics and shared personal history, sharper definition of the individual characters requires more distinct voices. Claire’s voice is never heard, perhaps because she is not a resident of Clifton Avenue during most of the book or perhaps because as a dancer her work is nonverbal while everyone else in the family trades in words. This reader wishes Claire had been heard from directly. Nevertheless, Stewart masters an ambitious objective: keeping the reader intrigued by these mild, sad, well-intentioned people. Each is subtly, quietly complex — what Josh’s potential girlfriend calls “untroubled in an interesting way.”
Author of three prior novels (Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife), Stewart cites George Eliot and Jane Austen among her influences. But The History of Us with its rueful, muted characters, and lovingly rendered shabby urban backwater setting, reminds this reviewer most of Anne Tyler’s down-on-its-heels Baltimore and her quirky families, content in their discontent. One also hears echoes of early Margaret Drabble’s North Londoners: eccentric intellectuals struggling personally and professionally amid the crumbling bricks and mortar of untidy old houses.
More realistic than whimsical Tyler, more optimistic than brooding Drabble, Stewart portrays the yearning and conflict of very recognizable people. Although their customary restraint contributes to a lulling tone and a very gradual narrative arc, Stewart makes the reader care about these good people — and applaud as each finally dares to break out of familial inertia, to act instead of yearn.
If a happy ending really is just the place you choose to stop telling the story, Stewart chooses to stop telling this story at a hopeful moment, but with nothing quite resolved or certain. Jane Austen might have sewn things up a tad more neatly; Eliot might have struck a ringing coda. But Stewart chooses an end point quite consistent with family life. We never quite know how it will all turn out, do we? Like her mentors Eliot and Austen, Stewart explores the delicate dilemmas of family life: balancing loyalty and self-interest, giving and receiving joy and sorrow, achieving togetherness and separateness.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s short fiction has appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Macguffin, The Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Potomac Review. Her paternal grandmother grew up in a house on Crown Street in Cincinnati, a city Campbell has never visited but feels acquainted with after reading Stewart’s novel. Like Wright Morris, Campbell believes the places in which we live inhabit us. She is at work on a novel set in a former psychiatric hospital near her home in Maryland.