Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The House at the End of Hope Street
by Menna van Praag
Pamela Dorman Books
Hardcover: 304 pages, April 4, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0670784639
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a magical place to escape to when real life gets to be a bit too much, or when you’re faced with making some important decisions that you just can’t quite bring yourself to make? Menna van Praag has created such a place in her novel The House at the End of Hope Street.
The house in question is over 200 years old but not visible to everyone—only to troubled young women with nowhere else to go. Peggy Abbot is the most recent in a long line of Abbot women who have maintained the house and played the role of landlady and surrogate mother to the dozens of women who have passed through its doors. “Maintain” the house is a bit of a stretch, as several episodes clearly illustrate that the house is a living, breathing being that is quite capable of taking care of itself as well as its inhabitants. The characters on its kitchenware switch places and change positions at night (and sometimes get very creative!) Its walls are full of photos of famous women who lived at the house at one time, including Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor, among others. The women in the photos whisper and converse with both each other and the house’s inhabitants. But it’s not a creepy, lingering presence; rather, van Praag has successfully set a tone of a warm, comforting, inviting place where you can literally be anything you want to be and anything can happen at any moment. And Peggy does her best to oversee all.
During the book’s opening scene, Alba Ashby, a young, painfully shy academic prodigy, is running from what is described (but not fully explained until later) as the Worst Day of Her Life when she finds herself on the doorstep of a beautiful Victorian house that she’s never noticed before. Peggy Abbot immediately takes the young girl in, and eventually Alba meets her two other housemates—Greer, a fledgling actress, and Carmen, a former wannabe singer who works at a bar after fleeing her abusive husband, but not without steep consequences. All three women are permitted to live at Hope Street, rent- and expense-free, for no more than ninety-nine days—a timeframe, according to Peggy, that is “long enough to help you turn your life around and short enough so you can’t put it off forever” (8). Each woman is given a room that reflects their deepest desires. Alba’s is full of books, Greer is surrounded by theatrical costumes and high fashion of every style and historical period, and in hers, Carmen is free to let herself dream of singing. Each woman (Peggy included) receives mysterious notes of affirmation and advice at various points throughout the book. For example, Greer feels as if her career is over before it’s really begun, and she’s at a loss as to what to do. As if by magic, a note appears that reads “First of all, find a job” (26). Alba, who is nursing a shattered heart and feeling completely alone, finds one that simply reads “You are loved” (23). Only later does she find out by whom, and just how much.
This book was compelling on so many levels. First is the obvious liberal use of magic and fantasy influencing everyday happenings—who hasn’t wished for something unexpected (and virtually unexplainable) to help in making a tough decision or simply shake you out of a rut, if only to show you that you truly aren’t alone? Van Praag fits a lot of backstory into a fairly short (280 page) novel, but rather than take away from the main plot, it rounds out each character very well. This book has so many dimensions and layers, and the reader pulls back another layer with each turn of the page. There are so many elements coming together at once, with the past, present, and future commingling throughout. What brought each woman to Hope Street? What do they truly want to do with their lives? What are they running from, and what will they run to? How did the house achieve these magical powers? And, more importantly, what will become of each woman at the end of their stay? The book has a bit of everything—romance and unrequited love, mystery, and a very strong sense of sisterhood and friendship. The reader gets the sense that these women deserve some magic in their lives, yes, but they are also their own biggest critics and obstacles to their truest happiness. Each woman arrives at Hope Street questioning herself, her self-confidence shaken, and extremely vulnerable, but young Alba is clearly the one most readers will root for, especially as more of her troubled past is revealed. Her great potential, both professionally and in matters of the heart, is obvious to just about everyone but herself, and that’s only because she was suppressing her truest self out of fear. Greer and Carmen, although older and a bit more worldly, are embarrassed to find themselves in an unexpected love triangle. It’s disappointing because both women are so adamant about finding themselves and rebuilding their lives, but their mutual slip just goes to show that even those with the toughest resolve can lose themselves in the heat of the moment. Neither woman loses credibility (in my opinion). If anything, the experience only made them more human and relatable.
The underlying message of the book is to have faith, trust in yourself, and follow your heart. You can have all of the support and encouragement in the world—or, in the case of some of the characters, very little guidance—but in the end, it’s up to each individual person to take that step that will lead them to their next chapter. All three women knew what paths they should follow but fought against this knowledge as hard as they could, which only resulted in their heart’s desire chasing them that much harder. The presence and influence of so many great women, nearly all of whom reveal their own struggles with insecurity and self-doubt, only strengthens the book’s overall message. This is a delightful, one-of-a-kind book. I rarely find a book where I actually want to crawl inside of the place, listen in on some conversations, and get to know some of the characters, but I found myself doing that with The House at the End of Hope Street.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com