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The Red House: A Novel

The Red House - Mark Haddon Angela and Richard are not close. Their mom has recently died, and Richard, who is very successful, invites his sister and her family to join his, at a country house for a week. The book is an enormous undertaking since it attempts to examine, interpret and resolve all of the issues in this estranged family, none of whom seem to like each other at first, all of whom are carrying their own baggage, as it exposes their thoughts, memories, and interactions in that short period of time.

Often, the behavior of the parents in this dysfunctional family is immature and self-centered, without regard for the needs of their children. Sometimes the children stepped up to the plate, acting as adults when necessary! On the other hand, like the adults, they all simply seemed to be seeking love, acceptance, recognition and understanding. They wanted to be heard, but they didn’t seem to know how to communicate. They misinterpreted the signals each of them gave to the other, they behaved impetuously and hurt one another, often unintentionally, but the pain was still there. The term “I’m sorry” was meaningless since it usually did not signify a change in the person’s behavior, but merely made the person feel better while the victim still suffered. Neither the children nor the adults seemed to ever consider the consequences of their actions until it was too late. They preferred to live in the moment and perhaps repent afterwards, if necessary. The adults and the children engage in bullying. As role models, they fall short in many categories.

The story is about contrasts between many things: humility vs. arrogance, goodness vs. evil, bullying vs. kindness, honor vs. dishonor, maturity vs. immaturity, madness vs. sanity, sibling rivalry vs. sibling love, children vs. parents, apathy vs. resolution, fidelity vs. infidelity, responsibility vs. irresponsibility, and religious conviction vs. the lack of same.

The book would have succeeded more for me if it didn’t lapse into a shopping list at times, as when they were in a store and the items on the shelves were listed ad infinitum, or when several lines from random poetry or quotes from books, suddenly popped up in the middle of a thought or dialogue, to subtly jar the memory of a character or shed light on the feelings in the present with a feeling experienced in the past, completely disorienting the reader for brief periods. (I listened to the book, and perhaps the staccato effect of the lists made me feel more unhinged. When reading it, perhaps the reader can just skim those parts, ending the tedium, as well.) The enormity of the conflicts each character experienced was fully and well demonstrated, but it would have been better had the extraneous bursts of thought been shorter and less long winded.

In addition to these subtle reminders, there were some obvious contrasts between the healthy and unhealthy aspects of adult and childlike behavior: the love scene between Richard and Louisa compared to the love scene between Melissa and Alex; the misguided love scene between Daisy and Melissa; the unhealthy sexual thoughts of love scenes experienced by both Richard and Dominick; the slow descent into a kind of madness with hallucinations experienced by Angela, while at the same time, her own daughter Daisy becomes clearer about her own self, in her own mind.

Even though the reader might have to plow through some parts, this book would be perfect for discussion in a group since there are so many current issues at play, divorce, homosexuality, sibling rivalry, lying, stealing, infidelity, wantonness, to name just a few.