One of the most enduring themes in literature is of the magnificent house or estate that hides the decay of the family who lives in it. With the current obsession with HGTV, designer homes and interior design magazines, it’s a lesson that’s worth repeating in every generation: A beautiful house is worthless unless equal care is given to its inhabitants. In her debut novel “A Perfect Home,” English artist Kitty Glanville gives us a heroine as trapped in her home as Henrik Ibsen’s Nora was in her doll’s house. That “A Doll’s House” was written in 1879 and “A Perfect Home” in 2012, it begs the question of just how far roles played by husbands and wives have evolved. Perhaps not as much as society gives itself credit.
Claire’s life seems so perfect, it’s no wonder “Idyllic Home” magazine wants to do a feature on her. Living in a restored farmhouse in the English countryside, Claire runs her own vintage textiles business – a Martha Stewart without the cooking – while she looks after her three children. Her husband, William, is an accountant who works long hours to support the family, then comes home to work on one more home project. His latest brainstorm: a summerhouse in the backyard. From the outside, everything looks flawless. But William treats Claire as little more than a servant, constantly belittling her for their two-year-old’s hand prints and other ways she falls short.
As Claire’s home is photographed for the Christmas issue of “Idyllic Home,” Claire quickly develops intense feelings for the photographer, Stefan. And Stefan doesn’t go away once the shoot is over.
Will Claire stay with her husband? Leave him for Stefan? Will William see Claire as more than just a maid?
From her very first paragraph – the description of a beautiful butterfly that flies away before Claire can catch it – Glanville does an excellent job establishing setting, character and plot, as well as foreshadowing events. Claire is an extraordinarily sympathetic protagonist, so even as she embarks on a relationship with Stefan with very little guilt, it is easy to root for her. She is a wonderful mother, a creative business owner and a tireless home maker. William’s dismissive treatment of her is infuriating.
The novel reads like a marriage of “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Unfaithful.” Claire’s instant infatuation with Stefan turns her into a 16-year-old girl, constantly checking her email and text messages. This sudden obsession made me wonder if Claire’s feelings were less about the handsome photographer and more about finally having someone – anyone – pay attention to her again. Back story shows William as a man who pretended to be interested in Claire’s pursuits and hobbies until their engagement. Then he dropped all pretense, let his mother take over wedding plans, directed Claire to take a job she didn’t want, and eventually painted her into a corner. Glanville does a nice job of contrasting how Claire’s relationship with William limits her, to the way love with the right person awakens Claire’s mother, Elizabeth.
Even though Claire does not sense it, Glanville gives the novel a feeling of foreboding. Things can and will blow up in Claire’s face. Most readers will be able to figure out how it will happen; that does not lessen the emotional impact of when it does.
I did have two issues with the book. One, I thought the character of William and his mother were too one dimensional and stereotypical. The unappreciative husband and overly critical mother-in-law are archetypes that readers see again and again. True, William’s obsession over his house does give his attitude toward Claire a modern spin, but he’s a character straight from the ‘50s....the 1850s. And his mother is so horrible, she doesn’t even deserve her own name.
My second issue is with the book’s ending. Not to give it away, but I felt that Glanville had done an excellent job moving Claire and the plot in a forward direction, and the ending felt like a cop out. I would have preferred things to be as they had seemed and for Claire to continue in that direction. Other readers may wholeheartedly disagree, but that’s a hallmark of literature – people will and should come to different conclusions.
One conclusion that everyone should agree with is that a house is not more important than the people who live in it. Another lesson that can be inferred from “A Perfect Home” is that a person who does not value herself will not be valued by others. While the characters in the novel may seem old-fashioned, the themes in “A Perfect Home” are timeless.
Thanks to Penguin for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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