A debut novel explores the complex story of an old house and those connected to it.
In 1894, local businessman Wilhelm Winkler purchases an impressive new property on Summit Avenue as his family home. His wife, Sophie, and daughter, Ellen, marvel at the house’s state-of-the-art facilities, including electric lighting and a flushing toilet. Fast-forward to the modern day, and Carole Browning, an attorney, learns that she has inherited a century-old property from an estranged great-grandfather, Henry Winkler. Along with her husband, Carlos, a cartoonist, she visits the house to find it in a state of dire disrepair (“It looked, Carole thought, like a cartoon haunted house, something Carlos would draw. Compared to the beautiful homes around it, it was like an ugly bruise”). For Carole, adopted at the age of 2 and with no knowledge of her ancestral line by birth, the house is a powerful reminder of the family she never knew. Her initial reaction is to distance herself from this emotional burden. Carlos, however, is eager to begin renovations, and, in doing so, all manner of secrets are revealed. The skillful layering of narratives, comprising the stories of the four generations of Winklers who have called the dwelling home, reflects vividly how a property can be inscribed and reinscribed by the lives of its inhabitants. For Carole, coming to know the house on Summit Avenue may lead her to better understand herself. This compelling novel creatively imagines the microhistory of a family in an unnamed Midwestern city. Through what is essentially a history of everyday life charted across several generations, it is possible to sense America as a changing nation. Morlock is acutely aware of this perpetual state of decay and renewal in his writing: “Like people, old houses wear down, and like people too, it seems, fall out of favor with age. In the sixties and seventies especially, Summit Avenue was abandoned by the well-off in favor of the newer suburbs sprouting like weeds in all directions.” This strong grasp of history is further bolstered by the author’s consistently sharp, elegant prose and a spellbinding ability to craft realistic flesh-and-blood characters, the fates of whom truly matter to the reader.
Warmly nostalgic without giving in to saccharine oversentimentality, this intricate tale chronicles an absorbing and affecting family journey across generations.