Cambridge, MA

Feminist Magical Realism, in Cambridge, Plus Books

The Fiction Addiction

Menna Van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street is magical realism set in Cambridge, which pretty much explains exactly why I wanted to read it.

A young Cambridge grad student, Alba, stumbles upon a house she’s never really noticed before. The house host, Peggy, isn’t at all surprised to see her, since the house at the end of Hope Street draws in women, and gives them ninety-nine days to sort out their problems.

Alba naturally decides to stay, which is exactly what we should all do if a magic house offers us ninety-nine days to fix our lives. The house is constantly giving the residents what they need, whether that’s producing ingredients to cook tasty meals, good books to read, a delicious chocolate cake for breakfast, or a closet full of exactly the sort of dresses a resident might want to wear. I mean, I’d go live there tomorrow, and I’m not even having the Worst Time Of My Entire Life.

Past residents of the house hang around in chatty photos. I can’t say I knew the name of every previous resident, but you don’t actually have to recognize them all in order to enjoy the halls filled with women who’ve found Hope Street at the lowest point in their lives, and gone on to literary, artistic, and historical success. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath comment from their picture frames. Also, there’s a ghost visiting Alba. It’s the feminist history dorm at Hogwarts, is what I’m saying.

I found myself reading the book a few times before writing any reactions. There was just so much going on that my first read was as fast as possible, turning pages quickly to see what would happen with the ghost, Alba’s jerk professor, Peggy’s elderly boyfriend, and everything else. In that order.

My second time through, I had more time to spend with other residents of Hope Street, both human and magical. Carmen and Greer are trying to sort out their own problems in their own 99 days, plus the collection of photos keeps up a running commentary. And the secondary characters, found around the bars, bookshops, and libraries of Cambridge (Cambridge is a pretty great city for drinking and reading, which may be part of why I like it so much), all had their own goals and quirks.

An ensemble novel is bound to be a couple thin moments, of course. Two residents find themselves involved with the same man, and when it all comes out, the women basically scowl, then shrug and move on to better men. Also, Alba’s family is Gothic-horror bad, right down to bribery and secretly destroying letters before they reach their destination, and that seems a bit mustache-twirling Evil Villain in a world of delicately nuanced characters.

Alba’s storyline is so deeply connected to literature, and on my second read, I noticed more ties between the books read and the characters’ situations. Although I love Jane Austen, Middlemarch, Howard’s End, and most of Alba’s reading list, A Room With a View features pretty heavily, and that one never made much impression on me. Might be time for a reread.

Feminist magical realism, set in one of my favorite cities, with books. Even better than I’d expected!

Fans of this novel should check out Menna Van Praag's other novels, The Dress Shop of Dreams and The Sisters Grimm. I've also enjoyed Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen, for moving magical realistic (specifically New Fruit, although that's not the only example in this collection), as well as The Hypothetical Girl, by Elizabeth Cohen.

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