In some ways The House We Grew Up In hit home for me, but ultimately I felt it both was a bit unlikely and found too easy a solution for large problems. It is about a family trying to cope with a terrible event and with their mother’s mental illness.
We meet the Bird family at various stages of their lives, beginning when the oldest daughter Meg is about ten. As Easter is mother Lorelei’s favorite holiday, many of the events in the novel are set at that time.
In her mid-thirties, Lorelei Bird is a vibrant, beautiful woman, but there are already signs of what will become her obsession. Her kitchen is cheerfully cluttered and serves as the gathering spot for friends and neighbors. Lorelei’s husband Colin is a gentle, loving man, but when the wading pool gets punctured and Lorelei argues for keeping it anyway, he remarks mildly that they already have several punctured pools in storage. The kitchen wall is gay with children’s drawings, but when any of the children draw something new, Colin hastily claims it to put in his files.
When Lorelei’s youngest children are sixteen, tragedy strikes. From a seemingly happy family, the Birds disintegrate into unhappy adults. Meg, apparently the most well-adjusted and practical, is rigid and judgmental and fanatical about neatness. Bethany, slightly younger, is afraid to leave home and carries on an inappropriate affair for years. Rory simply leaves, seldom to be seen again.
Lorelei dumps Colin for a relationship with Vicky, the next-door neighbor. By the time of her death, twenty years later, she has accumulated so much junk in the house that only narrow pathways are open and she lives in one soft chair. All her loved ones have left her because they can’t live in the environment she has created.
With her death, the scattered family reassembles to try to clean out the house. As they exchange information, they slowly begin to understand some family secrets.
In some ways, the novel affected me because I have a family member who is a hoarder, although not yet on the scale of Lorelei. Still, we have an unusable room and some junk piled up even in the public rooms. It is very difficult to deal with.
Yet, I felt that the novel was too easy. First, it gives every member of the immediate family severe emotional problems, which I actually found unlikely. Then it clears them up magically at the end after a few conversations. Not happening. The ending moves the novel in my mind from a thoughtful examination of the problems caused by unresolved tragedies and mental illness to something more closely resembling a sitcom ending.