It is not uncommon to observe that a house has “character” but, in Ann Leary’s latest novel, The Children, the house is literally an actor in the story.
The Roxbury resident, wife of actor Dennis Leary, said, “The house in The Children is more of a character than in The Good House (her 2013 bestseller) because the book is written in the first person and the action is limited to what the narrator sees.”
That narrator, Charlotte, is a single, childless woman who lives in her mother Joan’s attic and who hasn’t left the house since the death of her stepfather Whit Whitman’s death three years before. Shades of Emily Dickinson, she makes a good living as a writer, exploring lives she has never known—in this instance by penning a “mommy blog” about a fantasy family she will never have.
“You do find out a lot about the town and the people who lived there, but all from Charlotte’s perspective,” said Leary. “The house is one of those great houses you find in Washington (CT)—a Rossiter ‘cottage’ I literally took and plunked on a lake.”
When Charlotte was a little girl, her mother married Whit and they moved to Lakeside Cottage while his sons, Perry and Spin, grew up in New York City with their mother. Charlotte had Whit as a father and he influenced her in everything, but she is not going to inherit his house.”
Indeed, Perry and Spin have inherited the now-dilapidated house, which Joan occupies at Whit’s bidding. Things begin to unravel when Spin—the family darling—comes to stay with his soon-to-be fiancée, Laurel, a Westerner whose aggressively friendly manner jars in the repressed world of old-money New England. Secrets begin to surface and hidden tensions emerge as Leary explores her characters human dynamics in what Kirkus Reviews calls “a deeply satisfying novel.”
“The children are all in their 20s and everything is very polite,” said Leary. “They all adore Spin, who is the youngest and who straddles the two families—he loves the girls and loves his brother. Then Spin brings home a beautiful, talented woman from the West, and they are talking about doing the wedding at the house. Everyone has to look at their relationship with each other.”
Leary plays with a number of themes in her novel: old-money gentry who cling to their inherited wealth as a legacy that cannot be expended; houses occupied by successive generations; “connections” made on the Internet that replace flesh-and-blood interactions; even the phenomenon of intruders who enter houses not to steal but to tidy up.
“We moved a lot when I was growing up,” said Leary. “We now have a house in Roxbury where we have lived almost 20 years, the longest I have lived anywhere. I do have a romantic idea of houses that generations lived in.
“This is an old-money WASP family,” she continued, “and this person marrying into it is from the West. The fiancée is actually quite lovely in some ways but Charlotte, from the moment she meets her, is protective. Everything about her being there is awkward for Charlotte. The house has been let go a little bit in the way of these once-grand homes and Charlotte and her sister are looking at it a little defensively. Whit had plenty of money, but he was the kind who didn’t even like to pay for electricity.”
She drew one inspiration from the “Ask Me Anything” forum where someone posted that he sneaks into houses when people are asleep and then leaves. “It was the creepiest thing, but it informs the book because the book is about boundary crossing,” Leary said.
Her intruder sneaks in and tidies up the house before leaving. While she made up the event, she said her native Marblehead MA later had a series of break-ins in which the perpetrator simply rearranged things. “It was life imitating art,” she said. “There are real weirdos out there. Stealing is not okay, but it’s not going to creep you out like this. They people have penetrated your space.”
Equally bizarre are the faux relationships the Internet fosters. “I wanted to play with that,” the author said. “In her blog, Charlotte is married with two children. When she talks about her blog children it seems as if they are real to her. She hasn’t lost touch with reality, but it’s fake. I think this happens in today’s world with sites like Facebook.”
The New York Times bestselling author will sign her books July 23, from 3-5PM at Kent Town Hall in a program sponsored by the Kent Memorial Library and again at the 20th annual Sharon Summer Book Signing August 5.