Sunday, March 27, 2011

The New House by Lettice Cooper

Author Lettice Cooper
Still working my way through the Persephone list.  I've discovered several early editions at the local college libraries, including The New House by Lettice Cooper.

At first glance, this is a book in which not much happens:  after spending 30 years in a large home in Northern England, a widow and her thirtysomething daughter are downsizing and moving into a smaller home.  Sounds boring, right?  Well, this book is so much more than just about moving to a new house.  Set in 1936, this book touches on a lot of topics that are still timely today -- the relationships between parents and children, women's careers, marriage, class differences, socialism.  This book was published nearly 80 years ago, but the themes in it are still so relevant, I was amazed.

Mrs. Natalie Powell is the widow of a businessman who basically gave her everything she wanted for thirty years; after his death, money's tight and the big house has been sold and will most likely be knocked down by a developer and turned into a housing estate.  Over the course of one long day, she and her family -- three grown children, plus a daughter-in-law, future son-in-law, and her older sister --  are affected by the move.

As a military spouse, I have personally changed houses nine times in the last sixteen years, so this book intrigued me.  I can't say I've gotten used to it, but the move in this book is not so much about the physical change of one house to another; it's a reflection of how these people's lives are changing, whether they like it or not.  Mrs. Powell is a horribly selfish, self-centered woman, and all she can do all day is whine about how unfair this all is -- after spending years in a big house with five servants, she spent the last year since her husband's death with only two, and now they're down to one.  Boo hoo!  Her eldest daughter Rhoda, who never married, has basically spent her entire youth running to her mother's beck and call, and she's ready to get out.

Her son Maurice is struggling with a selfish wife (who's an awful lot like his mother), and though he was raised in a privileged household, he's beginning to wonder about the unfairness of his wealthy and upbringing, and whether another sort of life would be better for his own child.  The youngest daughter, Delia, is a real go-getter -- a career woman!  Shocking!   She takes after her father, who was a self-made man, and is urging her sister to break away from home before it's too late.  The book also includes Mrs. Powell's sister, Ellen, who spent her life taking care of her mother -- will this pattern repeat?

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of The New House.

The entire book takes place between the time the family wakes up early in the morning and goes to bed very late that night.  This book is about 300 pages long, but there's a lot packed into it.  Like a lot of Persephones, this is fiction about domestic life, but there are so many other themes going on that it gave me a lot to think about.  Again, this would be such a great book for a discussion group, especially since there are so many relevant topics about downsizing and family dynamics.  I may need to buy my own copy so I can foist it on someone else so we can discuss it.  If you're planning on participating in the Persephone Secret Santa next year, you may find this in your stocking.


  1. Yes - you're right so much more about familiy relationships than the saga of moving house. I loved the way that so much insight into the characters and their lives was given over the space of just on day.

  2. Another Persephone to add to my ever-growing list. Thanks so much for the review!

  3. I don't think this had made it to my list of "Persephones I want to read" -- but your review here may have changed that! I like the sounds of a book that takes place in one day yet has so many themes going on.

  4. This was on my list, because the premise interested me! Sounds like a fascinating account of a family, even though we won't like some of them...

  5. I have the Virago edition, and I knew that a book that had been published by Virago and Persephone had to be good. Once I get my library pile down I'll be pulling it out - you have inspired me!

  6. Verity -- I thought it was great. The book is only 300 pages, but there is so much in it. I especially liked how the personalities of the children were so distinct. Great characters.

    Bookmarksandteacups -- Initially, I just checked it out because it was available at one of the college libraries and I have reciprocal borrowing privileges. I got so involved with the story -- I highly recommend it.

    Rebecca -- I always think it's a sign of a great writer if the characters are unlikeable but I still want to read more. I think that's real talent.

    Fleurfisher -- I didn't know it was a Virago also! That's like a double recommendation right there. I'm really glad I read it.


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