Must Read: Dream House, A Novel by Catherine Armsden

By Dan Gregory

The cover illustrates how home influences life, both in reality

Just in time for holiday book lists, Dream House, by Catherine Armsden, is a must read for anyone thinking of building. That might sound counterintuitive, since the novel is about coming to grips with the knowledge that the house you grew up in is about to be torn down. But really it is about the layers of meaning that accrue to a house as it gradually becomes a home over time, and that should accrue, if the structure is ever to be more than stud walls and a roof. 

The author is an architect who has turned to writing, and she is exceptionally good at bringing places and people to life while making full use of her architectural knowledge to infuse the text with a kind of structural resonance. It's a novel that reads like a memoir. I would compare it The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt, which is a memoir that reads like a novel.

The story in Dream House concerns Gina Gilbert, who is herself an architect, and who is dealing with the aftermath of her parents' sudden death and the home they left behind, with all its memories of hope and despair. Gina travels from her home in San Francisco to her parents' house in Maine, both to move out her family's belongings and to work through her relationships with a domineering but loving mother and a supportive but distant father. The Maine house was a longterm rental on a dramatic site overlooking the sea; nearby is another older ancestral home owned by Gina's aunt that continues to exert an emotional pull even now that it has become an historic house museum after the aunt's death. At the same time, Gina is starting to design a house for her husband and her two children for a site in Marin County. So the plot cleverly oscillates between the temporary and the permanent, the imagined and the real -- which is how a home actually functions anyway.

The return to Maine causes a breakdown of sorts; Gina needs to work through the emotional baggage that both houses unpack. The coastal site is yet another metaphor: she is momentarily adrift from her doctor husband and son and daughter back in San Francisco and must find her way to land -- literally. Buried secrets, once uncovered, point the way. She begins the journey back to balance by drawing the 'as builts' for her parents' house, "and with her drawings deconstruct the house wall by wall in hopes of discovering what she wanted from it." Drawings become a way of fixing the old memories in place, so that Gina can move on to build new ones, or as she says to herself, when missing her husband and children: "Loving not only meant being there, but also taking turns trusting, knowing when to leave and let go." 

For Gina, drawing and "drawing out" become a form of therapy, which often describes the relationship between architect and client. Drawings -- not computer renderings but pencil on paper -- are the central metaphor for the book. Gina muses: "one wrong line in a drawing would send a ripple of error through the entire project." While she is in Maine, Gina is also designing a new house for clients in San Francisco and she feels that what these clients want is unrealistic. Ironically, events in Maine are teaching her how to be more realistic herself in acknowledging the emotional journey she is traveling, and draw strength from that realization.

The book is full of wonderful descriptions: for example, California houses "flanked by identical trees, each with its own IV of water to fool it into believing it was not growing in a desert." Or "Boats are like the anti-house. They're all about impermanence and escape." Architectural quotations -- from Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and even Frank Gehry, among others -- open each chapter and reinforce the theme of the house as a vessel for our emotions. The title is especially apt, for a house is always a dream: about what it was and what it could be. The book is a richly rewarding read. 

November 6, 2015

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