Falling In and Out of Friendship
An unlikely friendship is at the heart of a compelling story
Posted Mar 07, 2011
Have you ever had a friendship that became important but never would have happened if you had said what you were thinking the first time you met the person? We first meet one of the central characters in Ellen Meeropol's new novel, House Arrest, in just that situation. Emily, a 30-something woman who has always been single, is knocking on the door of another important character, Pippa, in the opening pages.
Emily is the nurse assigned to monitor Pippa's pregnancy. Pippa is under house arrest because her first baby froze to death during an outdoor winter Solstice ritual performed by Pippa's cult.
If I knew only this much about the book, I never would have read it. Too much risk that it would be gimmicky, what with the cult and the frozen babies and the young mom with an ankle bracelet to monitor her every move. But my trusted friend Kay Trimberger recommended it. Plus, after the first few paragraphs, I was already riveted.
I didn't plan to do so, but I read it straight through until I got to the end. Only then did I realize that this is the sort of novel I've been wanting to read for a very long time. Not just because it is a great story that is beautifully written (I love literary fiction), but also because the characters and their lives are so far afield from the configurations we have come to expect, such as the married parents with their two physically perfect children, living in a single-family home.
Emily lives with her sister Anna, and Anna's daughter Zoe (who has spinal bifida) on the first floor of a duplex. Anna is divorced from Sam, who lives on the second floor of the duplex. Pippa lives in a house with the other cult members, including other adults and children. Two of the other cult members are in jail awaiting trial - Tian, the cult leader who was the father of Pippa's daughter who died, and another woman whose baby also froze to death during the ritual.
The possibilities for caricaturing these people were plentiful, but the author never got close to doing so. All of the main characters are complex, flawed, fully developed and believable humans. The divorced dad isn't a deadbeat. He coped poorly with his daughter's disability during the first year of her life, but then developed a strong relationship with her. Zoe was not depicted as a tragic figure, but as a vibrant child with real challenges. The cult had its kookiness but Pippa was a compelling person, with a gripping back story and an emotional and psychological trajectory that was one of the beating hearts of the narrative.
There is no matrimania in House Arrest. In fact, there are no marriages in the forefront of the story, and none of the character's lives were motivated by the quest for coupling. This is a novel that takes all of the relationships in our lives that are typically marginalized - such as friendships, relationships between aunts and nieces, and connections that start out as purely professional ones - and puts them right in the middle of the drama of everyday life. What a joy to see that this can be done - and done so well.
House Arrest offers a sophisticated and nuanced approach to questions I like to ponder: How does friendship develop and what determines whether a friendship sticks or comes undone? When is deception warranted in order to protect another person - or is it? How can we live fully and meaningfully outside of the usual boxes that are offered up to us?
One last tidbit: The author, Ellen Meeropol, is married. I didn't learn that from the biographical note that is included in House Arrest - she doesn't mention it there.
[I will follow up on my previous post about singles activism soon. I got sidetracked by this novel.]
[The photo is of author Ellen Meeropol.]