Three years after the enthusiastic reception of her debut novel, “The Borrower,” Rebecca Makkai returns with “The Hundred-Year House,” an entertaining, ambitious saga of secrets, ghosts, and an old mansion. Setting her story on the sprawling estate of Laurelfield on Chicago’s North Shore, the author skillfully unfurls an intricate narrative — with an expansive cast of characters — which begins in 1990 and retraces to 1900.
The novel is structured as a generational triptych of sorts. Makkai assembles sturdy hinges between the distinct sections and confidently guides the reader deeper and deeper into the house’s dark history and secrets. The mansion of Laurelfield is the most present character in the novel, with its many rooms, sealed attic, and expressionless portrait of Violet Devohr. The first member of the wealthy Canadian family to live in the house, Violet allegedly committed suicide.
The novel begins with cash-strapped Zee and Doug arriving to live in the estate’s coach house as a temporary arrangement. Over the decades, the house and property have transformed from a private residence to an artist colony and back. Zee, a Marxist scholar, grew up in the property’s “big house’’ and returned to the area a couple of years before to take a teaching job at the local university. Doug is a struggling writer attempting to finish a monograph on obscure poet Edwin Parfitt in hopes of publishing and landing an academic appointment.
As Zee and Doug repaint the place, Zee catches glimpses of the main house, where her mother, Gracie, and her second husband, Bruce, live, and remembers her past. “When the oaks leaned toward the house and plastered their wet leaves to the windows, Zee used to imagine that it wasn’t rain or wind but Violet, in there still, sucking everything toward her, caught forever in her final, desperate circuit of the hallways.”
Coincidentally, Parfitt was among the many eccentric artists who lived and worked at the estate in its former incarnation as a colony. Doug becomes curious and begins to investigate. This seemingly bucolic life is disrupted when Gracie’s second husband, Bruce, allows his son, Case, and wife, Miriam, to share the coach house.
In the meantime, schemes, secrets, and obsessions abound: Zee attempts to sabotage the career of a colleague in order to provide a job opportunity for her husband, while Doug conspires to find his way into the ever-protected attic where he eventually discovers family secrets.
Midway through the novel, Makkai agilely rewinds in time to when Gracie, Zee’s mother, resides in the mansion with her abusive first husband after she is exiled from Toronto for choosing to marry him.
The next section features a ragtag group of artists, including Parfitt, working and frolicking at the colony. And then, the prologue (which appears at the end) spotlights Augustus Devohr, as he surveys the plot of land for his new home.
Throughout this spirited narrative, the author’s descriptions and observations are precise and insightful. For example, one evening when Grace rides home with George and takes in the surrounding neighborhood, Makkai writes: “Those homes always seemed so hidden and empty, no life but for someone out on the sidewalk. Now, every illuminated room was a perfect frame of yellow. Each frame both a revelation and a further mystery . . . She wanted to climb into each frame, to live in each for a year. But then George picked up speed again.”
Makkai’s lyrical prose quietly lifts off the page while her carefully crafted plot charges forward. Narratively, it’s a precarious balance that could easily tip at any moment into contrivance or melodrama, but neither occurs as this author strikes a perfect equilibrium of dark humor and tragedy.