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Book Review: Letting The House Go

Former journalist and media executive Robert Crooke creates such realistic characters and locales in his new novel, Letting the House Go that a reader is moved to find out if the places and people are real.

Some are. Set on the North Fork of Long Island in the present day, the narrative turns on the recent discovery of an invented canvas “The Prospect” by the real-life North Fork based artist William Sidney Mount. Mount’s dates are 1807-1868 and he was well known as a genre painter of the Stony Brook region. He also depicted antebellum freed slaves either in portraits or in scenes where they look on at white-only activities. Such compositions were unusual for the time.

It’s Crooke’s inclusion of this historical fact, in an intriguing domestic fiction about self-discovery, memory, regret and redemption that gives this — his 5th novel — memorable resonance. Not to mention the ear-perfect dialogue of his characters, including the back-and-forth sassing of young children and the wonderfully evocative descriptions of historical North Fork villages and beaches.

Protagonist Richard Morris is a well-known writer with a past he’s partially invoking in his latest novel. Parts of his overdue manuscript cut into the present, as the reader becomes aware that Richard is not confronting some aspects of his younger self when he lived in an old house in town and later when he was married to his now ex-wife Irene. He was unfaithful, he admits as much, but suggests it was because she was, he believed, with a childhood friend. That friend is now interested in the Mount canvas, estimated at at least two million. But it’s in the possession of Irene who would like to donate it to the local art museum.

The novel begins with Richard, living in Connecticut, driving past old haunts, including the house of his son Henry, whom he’s not eager to see, fearing his son’s wrath over the divorce and being abandoned as a child. Fortunately, Richard has kept in the good graces of his daughter-in-law. Richard’s back on Long Island because Irene’s attorney has informed him that Irene is close to death and has appointed him executor of her estate. It turns out that the attorney, Phil, who has always loved Irene, bought the painting from a stranger some years back, paying only $180. What’s going on? Who’s making the big bucks at Irene’s expense? It’s impressive how Crooke structures the novel by bringing real events of the past into fiction and informing the reader about a little-known fact in history.

In 1830 after a smallpox epidemic, whites in town drove out the Black workers by burning down their cottages saying they caused the epidemic. An excuse to get rid of them.
But Mount’s imagined painting “The Prospect” which was completed in the 1850s, anachronistically, includes those cottages. Though Mount shares the prominent racial attitude of the day, he was obviously sympathetic to the plight of Blacks and Crook has Mount give those freed but separate and unequal human beings history might otherwise ignore. This theme parallels Richard’s growing awareness of a false or partial narrative of his own life. Including repressed truths about what went on in his old house.

What are the reasons for repression or ignoring recollections? What is the obligation of an artist or memoirist to correct the record? Familiar themes but surprisingly and movingly integrated in Letting the House Go. 

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.