Read This: The Hundred-Year House

Rebecca Makkai's second novel jumps backward through history

While Rebecca Makkai was growing up, she was intrigued by the century-old mansions she and her parents frequently passed on drives through Chicago’s North Shore. She marveled at their impressive facades, which always contained an air of mystery for her. She wondered about the goings-on behind closed doors.

Although Makkai left Chicago for college in rural Virginia and graduate school in Vermont, she eventually made her way back. When she returned, her enchantment with the homes was rekindled. Her speculations became brainstorms and made their way into print in The Hundred- Year House.

The idea for the novel came while she was writing a short narrative, “Gatehouse.” In that tale, two men live together on a large estate with their wives. One of the men is anorexic, but no one believes him except the other man, who eventually becomes obsessed with proving it.

“I realized early on that it would be too long to publish as a short story, so I put it aside to work on my first novel,” Makkai says. “But the idea of two couples who don’t know each other well being forced to live together on an estate was something that still attracted me, and I kept coming back to it.”

After finishing her 2012 novel, The Borrower, Makkai found herself gravitating toward writing about a situation similar to that of “Gatehouse” for The Hundred-Year House. She returned to the concept, again setting two families who barely know one another in close quarters. It traces the history of Laurelfield, a mysterious old North Shore estate, and the secretive Devhor family that inhabits it — often uncomfortably.

The story begins in 1999 when an academic and his wife move into the coach house of the old estate. In an attempt to save his career, he studies the house’s past, focusing on 1955 and 1929. The book ends with a prologue set in 1900. The backward approach was one of the most difficult but intriguing aspects of writing the novel, Makkai says. She likens the method to a ninth-season episode of Seinfeld called “The Betrayal.” In it, the characters travel to India for a wedding, and all the scenes happen in reverse order. The humor, Makkai says, was in the “recognition factor” of particular events.

“I have always been fascinated by narratives that take you backwards through time to see why something that happens is happening,” Makkai says.

Even if this is a new method of story telling for Makkai, she has the chops to experiment. Her short stories were published in The Best American Short Stories four years in a row from 2008 to 2011, and her previous novel received positive reviews from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. If her previous works are any indication, this newest novel is sure to be a success.

On the Nightstand: Rebecca Makkai

Phantom_webThe Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon

“It’s one of two big books released this spring about the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark and the battle over her estate,” Makkai says. “Nonfiction is an indulgence for me. I can stop thinking about my own work for once, and this is particularly indulgent: money, scandal, secrets, mansions.” Image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing


Filmstrip_webA Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip by Kevin Brockmeier

“This book is in a category of one — a memoir of seventh grade, written for adults with some of Brockmeier’s signature surrealism thrown in. It’s sharp and heartbreaking.” Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


Unknown_webThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“I can’t wait to get to this — a novel about two families new to America. My own father was a refugee, and I’m always drawn to stories that ask what it means to be American, especially when they come as highly recommended as this one.” Image courtesy of Random House