REVIEW: A Novel that Explores a Famous Writer's Death, and its Aftermath

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass

Pantheon, 368 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

Is it better to be “secretly famous” or to be famous and have secrets?  Which is more truthful, the outer or the inner self?  And how do you separate the art from the artist?

These are just some of the questions that Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair, assistant to respected children’s book author/illustrator, Morty Lear (aka Mordecai Levy), must deal with after his accidental death when she unexpectedly inherits his Connecticut home in Julia Glass’s (National Book Award Winner for Three Junes) compelling exploration of celebrity culture, A House Among the Trees. 

This engaging novel opens with Tommy awaiting the arrival of Nicholas Greene, the “boyishly sexy, upper-crusty-sounding” multiple award-winning (Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA) British actor slotted to play Morty in an upcoming biopic.  Greene wants to do some deep research at the house in hopes of discovering the inner life of the revered writer.

Greene is not the only character in search of the author. Meredith Galanza, curator of the Contemporary Book Museum and Director of the Consortium for Outer Borough Museums, has assumed she would receive all of Lear’s artwork at his death.  But his will does not specify that and she is adamant about convincing Tommy that the holdings should remain with the museum.

One other key player with a significant claim to Lear’s literary estate is Dani, Tommy’s estranged younger brother.  Without his knowledge, Dani was the model for Lear’s most famous children’s book, Caldecott Award winner Colorquake, in which a young boy creates his own colorful world while dealing with the real world around him.

Tommy was 12 and Dani was in kindergarten when Lear spotted them playing in a New York City park.  Lear’s sketches of Dani become Ivo, the “impish, stout-limbed lad at the center of the story.” Glass provides a full summary of Colorquake, beginning with its memorable opening sentence, “Ivo’s mother kept a perfect house, a house among the trees.”  But Ivo’s life is not perfect.  He is a “budding artist” but because his mother doesn’t want “his colors to spill on her perfect armchairs, her perfect lamps, or her perfectly framed perfect paintings by artists more famous than Ivo,” she banishes the “wee lad” into a windowless basement room furnished only with “a step stool, draped with a color-stained rag.”

That is where Ivo creates his universe, “[u]ntil the day of the earthquake.” Unaware of what’s happening upstairs and in the outside world when the earthquake comes, Ivo creates a “coiled black panther” that becomes an iconic image in the book.  Drawings in the book alternate between color and black and white.  The panther becomes illusive.

Just as illusive is Lear’s life.  As with Ivo, there is a hidden story to his childhood.  Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, where his mother is a laundress at a “stately, remote inn,” he is party to a series of “incidents in the garden shed” that alter the course of his future.  These involve a “sexual humiliation” that is the “death of his innocence.” When his mother discovers what has happened, she flees Tucson the next day and drives across the country to Brooklyn.

Certain “conventional assumptions were made about the nature of the violation” that become the foundation for the movie that Greene is starring in.  The truths behind the events in Tucson, like the inner truths of Lear’s life, are slowly revealed as the novel unwinds.  Glass is a master at withholding information until just the right moment.

She is also adept at using specific details to reveal the hidden trappings of a person’s life.  As Greene explores Lear’s house he sees it as “one of those rare homes which appropriate the very character of its owners.” Especially, Lear’s closet.  Like the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s shirts, in A House Among the Trees, Glass uses descriptions of Lear’s necktie collection to unveil traits of his personality.  In a “circus of silk” there are

regimentals, polka dots, and paisleys, the quotidian fare of nine-to-fivers, but scattered robustly among them are ties with scholarly totemic prints of open books, inkwells, quill pens, library shelves—and garishly clever ties depicting characters from cartoons and storybooks:  Eeyore, Road Runner, Kermit the Frog, Ferdinand the Bull…Most striking of all is an indigo tie that portrays Rapunzel.  Her small, inscrutable face, leaning from a bright chink of window (her tower itself unseen), must fall just below the knot; luxuriant tresses of golden hair tumble and coil down to rest inside the tie’s angular end point.  It’s an object that merges masculinity with the unbridled feminine.

The lengthy description is noteworthy because it relates to a central part of Lear’s life with Soren Kelly, his lover who dies of AIDS.  Glass provides graphic details about their relationship and Soren’s death. 

Glass concludes this enthralling novel with an elegiac chapter worthy of Wordsworth.  She brings together all the characters – and sums up their stories tidily.  That includes Lear, whose life has been revealed as one “trapped between solitude and celebrity,” the kind of celebrity that takes in “all the available air.”

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals including the Seattle Times, the New York Times Book Review, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, People, the Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, and others.  He is a judge for Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize creative writing contest, and his short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.