Book Review: The Language of Houses

The Language of Houses by Alison Lurie is a fascinating book. Below is an excerpt.



When two people live together, one of them may be largely responsible for the decor of any room, or it may be the result of collaboration or compromise. The true state of affairs can usually be determined by simply praising the way the place looks, and observing who takes credit for it. If both do, their relationship probably is (or recently was) a happy one. When one or both partner volubly refuses all acclaim, it may indicate either aesthetic indifference or emotional detachment, possibly both.

Sometimes different rooms will have very different atmospheres. There may be a bright, cheerful kitchen where one member of the family (not always the mother) is usually to be found, and a dark, dosed-in office or study where someone else seems to work and live. The opposite situation is also possible: a bright, cheerful, orderly home office and a dismal, dirty kitchen. If there is only a single adult in the home, we may have the impression of a split personality: someone who loves work and hates cooking, or the reverse.

Houses can also seem to have personalities of their own. As Libbie Block puts it in her brilliant but now almost forgotten novel about Hollywood, Tbe Hills of Beverly, “there were houses which made for laughter and some which made for tears, some which caused quarrels, and some which were so cold and emotionless that love froze in them and died.” There are homes in which we instantly feel comfortable: something about the shape of the rooms, the furniture, the light, and the colors makes us happy. There are also dwellings like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, in the book of the same name, that feel wrong and make us uncomfortable. In Hill House, Jackson writes, “the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less.” It is a sensation that some people have also had in certain office and school hallways, or in high-rise public housing where the buildings tend to be peculiarly tall and thin, with windswept exterior passageways blocked by wire fencing.

As Joyce Carol Oates has written in a memoir of her childhood, “The house contains the home but is not identical with it. The house anticipates the home and will very likely survive it.” When we enter any residence we will be aware of it both as a house and as a home. In some cases, we will know or sense that there has been trouble there, and will therefore unconsciously see it as what sociologists call a broken home: a building symbolically split in half, as if by an explosion, with objects out of place and something wrong about the light. On other, better occasions we will feel a kind of euphoria, as if we have at last entered the Happy Home of our childhood dreams and drawings.


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