Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

When Alba Ashby, the youngest Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, suffers the Worst Event of Her Life, she finds herself at the door of 11 Hope Street. There, a beautiful older woman named Peggy invites Alba to stay on the house’s unusual conditions: she’ll have ninety-nine nights, and no more, to turn her life around. Once inside, Alba discovers that 11 Hope Street is no ordinary house. Past residents include Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie, who all stayed there at hopeless times in their lives and who still hang around—quite literally—in talking portraits on the walls. With their help Alba begins to piece her life back together and embarks on a journey that may save her life.

Filled with a colorful, unforgettable cast of literary figures, The House at the End of Hope Street is a wholly imaginative novel of feminine wisdom and second chances, with just the right dash of magic.

Goodreads description

I found this book to be an easy read - I read it in one evening. It has a feel-good story about a magical house and its residents and is almost fairytale-like. Indeed in the first paragraph the house is described thus: the house appears to be enchanted. As if Rapunzel lives in the tower and a hundred Sleeping Beauties lie in the beds. And throughout the first chapter there are references to many more fairytales, with Peggy, the house's octogenarian owner, a benevolent witch complete with ghost cat, Oscar.

I know that a lot of readers like to read this sort of book. The house was enchanting and enchanted. No surprise then that when Alba walks through the door away from the real world and its problems, suddenly she is surrounded by magic (at which she hardly bats an eye). Pictures on the wall talk to her, books rearrange themselves on shelves, notes of advice appear out of air. It is a veritable Hogwarts.  Outside the house, the world is an altogether colder, less charitable sort of place. One might say that it is the realism to the house's magic. But does it make this book magic realism? Or should the magic be within the real? 

Whatever the answer to that question, I did get into the story and yes I did care what happened to young Alba Ashley, Peggy, Greer and Carmen. I, like Alba, still love a fairytale. But (you could tell there was a but coming) it was like reading literary candy-floss. After I put the book down, I felt unsatisfied.

The author's plotting at times was predicable and at others managed to surprise me.  But when you read in the first chapter, This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that's ever happened? When you leave, you'll realize it was the very best thing of all, you sort of know what the ending will look like. Was it necessary to foreshadow it like that? But maybe that doesn't matter, many readers want and expect a happy ending.

So what are my conclusions: this is a great book if you want something undemanding, if you want a modern fairytale, if you want something to curl up with. I enjoyed it at that level. I just wanted more. I suppose I like my fairytales with the darkness left in. There are some sad elements in The House at the End of Hope Street. Abuse, physical and mental cruelty, loss of a child, all feature in the residents' pasts and I suppose I wanted those brought out more. Just as I wanted more made of the famous women whose portraits line the walls and advise the current residents. So much could have been done to bring out the "feminine wisdom" of the blurb.

I received this book from the publishers via Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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