Monday, May 14, 2012

Listen Up! - Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

Keeping the House (M) by Ellen Baker is a multi-generational family saga set in small town Wisconsin in alternating time periods spanning from the turn of the century to the 1950's. Two brides, generations apart, come reluctantly to live in Pine Rapids, a suffocatingly small town whose residents never forget or forgive a slight or a grudge. The story revolves around the relationship of two families to one house. One family leaves the house and its memories and the other is desperate to possess it. It seems to represent something important to both of them.

Dolly Magnuson is a young new bride in the 1950s. Her husband moves her to Pine Rapids, much against her will, to pursue a career. Dolly is alone in her new home, without family, friends or career, and tries to define her role as wife through "how to be a housewife" articles in women's magazines, whose advice is paralyzing enough to suck the life and oxygen out of most humans. As Dolly tries to force herself into this role of wife and homemaker, she, despite having no talent or inclination, joins a quilting group and there learns not only the rules of the town, but also the story of the Mickleson's, the family whose house she covets. Lacking intimacy in her own life, she looks instead towards the Mickleson's with almost soap opera fascination.

Like Dolly, Wilma Mickleson was a young bride who found she was unsuited for the roles of wife, mother and keeper of a large and elaborate home. Secrets and unfortunate occurrences alienate Wilma from her family and the community and have lasting and devastating consequences for generations to come. The story spans the two world wars and focus on marriages where people simply don't communicate with one another and allow secrets to wreak havoc on family members yet unborn.

Sometimes with an audio book, it can be difficult to keep track of a large cast of characters, but in this case I didn't find it to be so. The story line went back and forth in time and focused on different family members at different points in time. I never found this to be an issue despite the fact that the narrator was not especially good at distinguishing voices. This is a nice example of character driven domestic fiction packed with lots of satisfying details. It's a pleasant book to accompany a summer walk (or several, as it is an unabridged version and is more than sixteen hours long).

Fans of family sagas and domestic fictions might also enjoy books by Elizabeth Strout (M), Anne Tyler (M) and Elizabeth Berg (M).

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