Two married couples find themselves cohabitating in a guesthouse on the rich—and possibly haunted—estate of Laurelfield, once an artist and writer’s colony.
In her sophomore novel (The Borrower, 2011), which starts in 1999 and rewinds in four parts through the decades to 1900, Makkai takes us on a tour of the house's power over its owners and the artist residents of decades past. She first closely follows the marriage of Doug and Zee, which has been upended by financial concerns and unfulfilled career ambitions. Cash-strapped, they have moved to a house on Zee’s mother’s estate in order for Doug to finish his monograph on the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was luckily once a resident of the artist’s colony. But secretly, instead of doing his work, Doug is writing books in a formulaic middle-grade series for a couple of grand a pop. Zee, a Marxist theorist in the English department at the local college, is desperate to get her husband a job and sabotages the career of a curmudgeonly older professor in hopes that Doug will get his spot. Meanwhile, the owner of the estate, Zee’s mother, Grace, allows her second husband's son, Case, and daughter-in-law, Miriam, to move into the guesthouse with Doug and Zee, further weakening an already fraying relationship. These guests of Laurelfield are complex, trapped not only by the estate, which has a complicated history and dark secrets of its own, but by their own problems and decisions; as Makkai explains, “They had come to Laurelfield to face their lives and their marriage and the end of the millennium. Any number of explosive things.”
Makkai strikes a smartly absurdist tone as her characters nervously await impending doom from the uneventful Y2K bug, but while the novel is both funny and smart at times, Makkai fails to make the estate the foreboding character it needs to be to both ground and uproot these privileged characters who can't see how lucky they are and how self-absorbed their lives have become.