This book is so startlingly creative it defies classification. Reading it is like sinking slowly into a warm bath. Makkai's skillful prose pulled me under the surface and held me there, entranced. (Does that sound malevolent, like the book was trying to drown me? Maybe my metaphor is flawed, but I loved this book so much I would have accepted oxygen deprivation as a fair price to pay to keep reading.)
Makkai tells her story in reverse, beginning with the most recent generation of the eccentric old-money Devohr family and ending nearly a century earlier. The book opens in 1999 with married couple Zee and Doug living somewhat sheepishly in the coach house on Zee's mother's estate, Laurelfield. Zee is a literary scholar and professor, and Doug is supposed to be writing a book about a little-known poet, though his motivation and his research have stalled and he's secretly resorted to writing trite chapter books for preteen girls. Doug has read that Edwin Parfitt, the poet on whom he's focused years of research, once stayed at Laurelfield in the years when it was an arts colony. If he could convince Zee's tempestuous mother Grace to let him into the attic to look through the colony's archives, he might be able to regain his momentum and finish his book. However, Grace is being typically stubborn and oddly cryptic about the house's history and, for that matter, her own.
Makkai plants lots of seeds of questions in this first section, but the magic happens when she rolls back time to 1955, then 1929, and finally 1900 and starts harvesting. The book is full to bursting with tiny details, the delicate strands of which stretch tenuously from one generation to another. I felt compelled to read as closely as I could, trying to remember all the little signposts so that when I encountered them again, I would feel the thrill of recognition.
I've seen this book called “ambitious,” and that's exactly what it is—ambitious in the writing, but also ambitious in the reading. Makkai has written the treasure map, but the reader has to do the hunting. It's absolutely worth the effort.
With regards to NetGalley and Penguin for the advance copy. On sale July 10.