In Laken’s debut novel, a young couple tries to salvage their shaky marriage by buying a rundown house in a gentrifying Ann Arbor neighborhood.
Laken (Creative Writing/Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) first takes us to that house on a July night in 1987, when it’s just been the scene of a shooting. At least one person is dead, we learn, and Walker Price, eldest son of the black family that lived there, is in jail. Eighteen years later, Kate Kinzler ruefully contemplates the crummy Ann Arbor apartment she shares with husband Stuart. When they met, his easygoing ways were a relief from the high expectations of Kate’s affluent, hypercritical father. But at 29, Kate is tired of living like an undergraduate and tired of aimless Stuart as well. He knows it, so when Dad flourishes a big check to house-hunt with, Stuart swallows his resentment. But he seethes while Kate undertakes obsessive renovations and finally walks out shortly after they learn their new home was the scene of a murder. Alternating chapters introduce Walker, out of jail at age 36, and it’s clear he will cross paths with the troubled woman who bought his family’s house. But Laken’s careful plotting never seems contrived. The author so perceptively examines her varied cast’s personal conflicts and social anxieties that the few big coincidences feel real, the sort of improbable conjunctions that happen in real life. Laken makes palpable the huge role that homes play in people’s sense of identity and self-worth, and she delicately builds camaraderie between Kate and Walker, both grappling with the legacies of demanding fathers, without airbrushing the vast differences that divide them. A disaster occurs, but the human bonds that link these appealing characters are frayed, not broken. The author closes with a moving vision of “the struggle to hold lives together, to make shelter and lose it, to hope, to endure.”
Laken handles the fraught subjects of class, race and family bonds with equal candor and sensitivity in this powerful book.