An offbeat novel that surveys American history from the 19th to 21st centuries through the unique perspective of an Italianate manor house and a garrulous portrait painting.
In this debut, architect Ashworth and composer Kander turn their artistic sensibilities to a narrative that explores ideas of progress, art, and the connections between humans and the places they live. Ambleside, a magnificent house built on a hill in Newton, Kansas, can see its surroundings but is unable to understand human language. A portrait of a woman named Mrs. Peale, hung within the house, can understand humans and communicate with the house but is only able to see things from its vantage point on the wall. The pair strike up a Socratic dialogue of sorts, combining their senses to piece together the story of the Hart family that inhabits Ambleside during its early years and to understand the sociocultural forces in the world around them. In this centurieslong conversation, Mrs. Peale acts as interlocutor for the endlessly curious house, taking up consideration of topics that range from household gossip to the substance of the soul. Readers also come to know Henry and Emmaline Hart, their three rambunctious daughters, and various other household staff members, friends, and descendants of the Hart family. The house and the painting share a charming fascination with etymology and classical antiquity, born out of the real Mrs. Peale’s time as an instructor of Greek and Latin at the Hartford Female Seminary, as well as a deep affection for the Harts that grows over decades. Throughout the narrative, the authors employ a light touch but also address weighty historical trends and events, including racial prejudice in the Jim Crow–era South, the women’s suffrage movement, the dire poverty of the Dust Bowl period, and two world wars. The detached perspective of the nonhuman protagonists offers a nuanced understanding of human nature, although the main characters’ moments of self-reflection are relatively few and fleeting, crowded out by quotidian meditations.
An often pleasant, time-skipping read that will engross fans of U.S. history, art, and architecture.