In her ambitious debut novel, “The Carriage House,’’ Louisa Hall takes on one of the giants: Jane Austen, specifically her 1818 classic “Persuasion.’’ Hall’s two epigraphs come from that novel, and there are many echoes throughout, both in style and substance. In particular, Hall’s characters struggle with the same emotion that Austen’s protagonist Anne did: regret. They pine for who they were, their younger, better selves. They rue the decisions they made. They mourn the losses.
But “The Carriage House’’ is not a page-by-page, 21st-century revision of Austen’s work. It has a much more intricate structure. Hall spins out her tale by dividing the novel’s 31 chapters into the alternating perspectives of the seven members of the Adair household living in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the summer of 2000.
William is the father who suffers a stroke at the start of the book; Margaux, the mother who has early-onset Alzheimer’s; Margaux’s caretaker, Louise, a young Australian; Adelia, a childhood girlfriend of William who once rejected his marriage proposal but is still in love with him and moves into the house after his stroke.
And then there are the three Adair daughters, all brilliant and attractive in youth and now a bit lost, each “a planet that had fallen out of its orbit.” Elizabeth, 32, a failed actress, her marriage in Los Angeles broken asunder by her husband’s infidelity, is back in the Main Line with her two young daughters. Diana, a grad school dropout in her late 20s living at home, secretly got engaged in college to Arthur, her high school sweetheart, and then broke it off. And now, like Austen’s male protagonist, Captain Wentworth, Arthur is back in the neighborhood. Last comes Isabelle, a beautiful, sorrowful 18-year-old.
Since the narrative is told from this ever-switching, almost kaleidoscopic point-of-view, it takes a while to get into the story. You have to wait for each character to fully unfold. But the interwoven tensions in the neighborhood and in the lives of the Adair family meld just as the story catches fire.
In a vivid set-piece, Hall has Isabelle crack. After a dinner party, she gets drunk, flirts and feuds with a neighbor, and then lobs flaming tennis balls into the family’s decrepit, historic carriage house — the symbol of the Adairs, designed by William’s grandfather, now rat-infested and slated for the wrecking ball. “It was like a Viking funeral ceremony,” Hall writes. “She was shooting flaming arrows, and the carriage house was like a big canoe in the lake in the night.” As the carriage house burns down, Isabelle hops in the family Jeep and speeds off, only to crash into a tree, nearly killing herself.
The fire and accident jolt the family out of their static, depressive troughs. They mostly recover and find a renewed sense of strength and serenity. They might still mourn their past lives, but at the same time there comes the promise of a fresh start.
In the past half-dozen years, four former standout members of the Harvard women’s squash team have written well-received novels: Jordanna Fraiberg ’94, Galt Niederhoffer ’97 (the daughter of squash legend Victor ‘64), Ivy Pochoda ’98 and now Hall ’04. After Harvard, Hall played squash professionally (topping out at 60 in the world, not 2, as the dust jacket states) before going to the University of Texas for her PhD in English literature.
Is there something in the water at the squash courts? None of the novels do more than mention the game. (The motif of tennis does snake through “The Carriage House,’’ and there are some lovely descriptions of play that bookend the novel.) But maybe some of that gladiatorial, fiercely-focused spirit that squash demands helped these women succeed where other would-be novelists fail.
Regardless, Louisa Hall has written a splendid, carefully-plotted, open-hearted novel. The writing is strong. Hall is especially perceptive at describing the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s on Margaux’s loved ones. “The Carriage House’’ is not perfect, but as Jane Austen said of Anne Elliot in “Persuasion,’’ maybe that is a good thing: “She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.”