Saturday, September 26, 2009

Book Review: Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love, by Rachel Simon

Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love, by Rachel Simon

Let's just get these disclaimers out of the way right now: when it comes to Rachel Simon, I'm a bit of a fangirl.

Whenever people ask me who my favorite writers are, Rachel Simon's name is always among them, and she has been there since I clipped her op-eds from The Philadelphia Inquirer, since I heard her speak at a writing conference in 1991, and since I had the thrill of being her student in a writing salon series at a bookstore several years ago. We had been in touch for awhile, then suddenly - not at all.

I tell people (truly, I do) that Rachel Simon is the best writer you've probably never read.

Her 2003 bestselling memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister was made into a Hallmark television movie starring Andie McDowell and Rosie O'Donnell. Her previous two books, a short-story collection called Little Nightmares, Little Dreams (1990) and a magical realism novel titled The Magic Touch (1994) are well worth tracking down, although they may be out of print (when I was her student, I lamented my inability to find The Magic Touch; the following week, she brought an autographed copy to class for me, having personally retrieved it from boxes in her basement. How freakin' cool is that??!!) Rachel is also the author of a nonfiction book, The Writer's Survival Guide.

So since it has been six years since a new book from her, I was thrilled to see Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love on the New Releases shelf of the library. In many ways, it picks up where Riding the Bus .... drops you off. (It could be helpful to read Riding the Bus ... before Building a Home, but it's not necessary to do so.)

It opens with a burglary-in-progress of Rachel's and her husband Hal's home in Wilmington, Delaware. Understandably, the shock of the robbery intensifies Rachel's doubts about staying in the neighborhood coupled with her realization that there is much to love about it. Their historic home is within blocks of a beautiful park along the river, a small zoo (which happens to be one of my Betty's personal favorites) and includes friendly, collegial neighbors on a street dubbed Teacher's Lane.

A sagging real-estate market makes moving unpractical, so Rachel and Hal decide to invest in renovating their home.

Anyone who has lived through any type of home renovation knows that such a project (or projects, as the case may be) is not easy. Hal's professional experience as an architect comes in handy, but his expertise isn't enough to ward off a disaster, prompted by a mistake by one of the workers, right as the renovation project is nearing completion.

In Rachel and Hal's case, their entire house becomes a construction zone amid escalating emotions and expenses. At the same time, it becomes to symbolize something more.

"It is ours because it reflects our personalities. It is also not ours, because it exists before and it will exist after, and we are just passing through, as all of us do through time itself." (pg. 230)

"If only this house could tell us all that it's seen. If only we could learn the ways of love and commitment that those before us worked out through their own lives then we might not stumble so hard, and so long, and so many times. I know the stories are right here, all around us. If only we were able to listen." (pg. 232)

Yes, this is a book about the renovating of a house, but it is also about the many stages and designs that our relationships go through - the relationships with our partners, parents, siblings, friends and ultimately, ourselves. We've all experienced the giddiness of new love when the paint is bright and the fixtures gleam; when we design the blueprints and draw up plans to meet that cute guy that says hello every morning; when the every day, almost mundane scenarios of our lives explode with a cancer scare, a break-up or a break-in, a fight unable to be mended.

Building a Home with My Husband is a story told in present day as well as in flashbacks to different stages of the author's life. I loved the honesty that Rachel brings to the story, her heartfelt writing of wrestling with difficult emotions and decisions, and the humor of being stymied when needing to "let go" of a lifetime of possessions that are connected with people and places that were with us as we poured the foundations of our souls. (Right there with you, girlfriend.)

I love so much of Rachel Simon's work, including this memoir. I think anyone who has lived through a renovation (even of just one room) and who is intrigued by the premise of how such a process is closely aligned with the core of one's life would also enjoy Building a Home with My Husband.

Here's what some other bloggers had to say ...

Book by Book

Charlotte's Web of Books

Compulsive Overreader


Sue Jackson said...

Hi, Melissa -

Thanks for stopping by my blog! I had to come by to check out your review, too - as you could tell, I'm also a fan of Rachel Simon's writing. I didn't realize she'd written a NF book about writing - I'll have to check that one out!

Like you, I'm also a writer, and we're practically neighbors!

I can also relate somewhat to the challenges of raising a special needs child, though in a different way. Both of my sons and I all have a chronic illness, an immune system disorder, so we are dealing with many special challenges (and 504 plans, etc.) at our house, too.

I don't know if you saw this or if you went directly to the Simon review at my blog, but on today's post, I featured a quote from this book - two actually - one at my book blog and another at my chronic illness blog. I just loved the way she writes so honestly and aptly about life and love. I wrote down many quotes from this book.

Nice to "meet" you!


Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Wow, you are probably right! She sounds like she must be the best writer I've never read.

Turning a renovation tale into so much more requires that special skill, which it seems as though this writer has in spades.

I must add this one to my list!

JoAnn said...

This sounds wonderful! I survived a major home renovation 7 years ago (seems like yesterday in some ways) and look forward to reading about Simon's experience... but will start with Riding the Bus with My Sister.