Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-27066-5.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 04/08/2010
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the funniest, wittiest book I have read in a very long time. Briskly entertaining and nearly pitch-perfect, Meghan Daum's memoir is the story of her decades-long obsession with unaffordable apartments in New York, unmanageable farms in Nebraska, and houses (suitable and un-) in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It is also the story of too many of us, people whose lives are defined by media-spun dreams of high-class, high-priced, high-maintenance houses that are projections of the selves we long to be and can never quite become. Unless, of course, we are able to find the perfect house, in which our lives would suddenly become perfect.
Daum's house-driven obsession begins in her childhood, with an "alarming fixation" on the pioneer fantasy houses of Little House on the Prairie, fueled by her parents' equally alarming obsession with New York. They don't live there, but they pretend that they do, to the point where her father (who writes musical jingles for a living) maintains a telephone line in a one-room office in Manhattan, which rings through to their suburban Ridgeway, New Jersey house. Her mother (who is driven to decorate the family home as a way of overcoming the "yokelness of her upbringing") tells Midwestern relatives that they live "in the city"—New York, of course. "Two-facedness," Daum says, was the "family crest" and the family weekend getaways are visits to "open houses," as her mother fantasizes about the life she might lead—the person she might be—if she lived in each house.
Daum's troubled relationships to place (her "lifelong housing neuroses") continue through her college years at Vassar (where she majors in English and minors in moving from one dorm room to another) and then through her relocation to New York, where, she believes, she will be able to "slough off" the residue of her mother's and father's disenchantments with who they are and become, finally and triumphantly, her own person, in her very own enchanted place. It doesn't quite work out that way, she discovers as she "rotates" through one roommate after another in an apartment on West 100th Street, then moves to her own apartment. And then—improbably, after writing and selling a novel about a girl who moves to a small town in the Midwest—she relocates again, this time, to Lincoln, NE, where she settles—improbably—on a farm. But (let me be brief here) when her novel is optioned for film, she moves to Los Angeles, accompanied by her large, yak-like sheepdog, Rex, her constant and uncomplaining companion in all her moves. Then back again to Nebraska, where she actually buys a farm, and then back to Los Angeles, where—
But really, you must read this to-and-fro story for yourself, because no summary of it could be nearly as funny as Daum's manic telling of the back-and-forthness of her life. She is at her wittiest when she is making wild (but compassionate) fun of herself and the transient habits which, she says, were her "default setting," and describing the frenzied bubble of the Los Angeles real estate markets of the early 2000s.
If the memoir were just the recitation of Daum's obsession, however, it would not be anything more than a highly entertaining read. What makes this memoir truly and intensely interesting is the writer's insight into her inherited house-habiting angst and her understanding that this desire is woven deeply through our transient culture, dating back (at least) to the constant movements of pioneer families like that of Pa and Ma Ingalls, of Little House fame. Daum is by nature and nurture fickle, she says, a "house slut" who passionately loves houses, lives in them briefly, and then leaves them for other houses, when all the time what she really wants, deeply and painfully, is the perfect home, where she could be perfectly and permanently housed. Such a place would, she writes, confer on her an "I.D. badge for adulthood, for personhood even. It was the only thing that would make me desirable, credible, even human."
Daum's candid description of herself could well be the description of a large segment of the American home-buying public, collectively united in the belief that the perfect house would confer upon them the perfect life. In the early years of this century, the real estate and finance industries conspired to hype this irrational, cultish belief, ratcheting up home prices until they soared into the stratosphere. Realtors and bankers were aided and abetted by the advertising and home decorating industries: "The Home & Garden TV cable channel," Daum writes, offered "a round-the-clock infusion of house porn for wretches like me." As a result, people in search of personhood found themselves in possession of million-dollar houses with adjustable-rate mortgages. These houses quickly sank underwater, leaving their buyers stranded, bankrupt, and (presumably) unpersoned.
Daum's story has a happier ending, for she manages at last to find an almost-suitable Los Angeles bungalow that she can almost afford, one that brings her real life and her ideal life together under one roof. Never mind that it costs nearly half a million dollars, or that the garage resembles the "ruins of Pompeii" and the plumbing was installed during the Coolidge administration. She buys (wisely, on a standard thirty-year mortgage) and begins to remodel. Two years into the process, she meets a man who amiably consents to help her shop for antique drawer-pulls on their first date and eventually becomes her roommate. Now married, she is again contemplating a move—this time, for reasons that have a lasting importance to both of them: "Because the house is not our house, it's my house. It may be my home, but it's not really our home."
This is a book about one woman's lifelong game of house, but it is about also our American obsession with houses, with the dream of owning something that will transform us into the persons we dream of becoming. But as Daum says, maybe owning the perfect house (which seems so difficult to so many) is actually easy, when the "hard part is learning how to hold the title to your very existence, to own not only property, but also your life."
Meghan Daum is the author of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, a personal chronicle of real estate addiction and obsessive fascination with houses, as well as the novel The Quality of Life Report and the essay collection My Misspent Youth. Since 2005 she has written a weekly column for The Los Angeles Times. She has contributed to public radio's Morning Edition, Marketplace and This American Life and has written for numerous publications. Visit her website.
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