REVIEW: A HOUSE FOR ALL SEASONS BY JENN J MCLEOD

HOUSE FOR ALL SEASONS

Author: Jenn J McLeod
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan House for All Seasons

The first thing that struck me about Jenn J McLeod’s debut novel House for all Seasons was the cover. It’s gorgeous – one of those covers that lures the reader in with its beauty, like a mermaid on the rocks. The danger is, of course, that you won’t be able to put it down for a good while … at least, that’s how I felt as I dragged my eyes from the cover and into the ‘Dandelion House’ aka ‘House of Wishes. Inside, I found four characters to love and a life-changing secret. That’s my kind of book.

Four estranged school friends are surprised to learn they have jointly inherited Dandelion House in their hometown, Calingarry Crossing. Even more surprising is the condition of the bequest – each one must stay for a season at the home. Sara, Poppy, Amber and Caitlin have not been back to their hometown since they left as teenagers, nor have they kept in contact with each other or their benefactor, Gypsy. They know that going back will stir up memories of the past, including a tragic accident at the end of Year 12 muck-up day. It’s with reluctance – for some more than others – that the women agree to take turns living in the house that was once a haven for them. With each one at a crossroads, Gypsy’s terms prove to be the much-needed catalyst they need to change.

One by one, each woman arrives and sees the house through different eyes. Although they don’t realise this straight away, their bedrooms reflect what they most need (Gypsy is, the reader finds, a most intuitive woman). Amber’s, for example, is sparsely furnished (at first the socialite is tempted to find a hotel) and it signifies a need for her to cast off her veneer, get back to basics and find the real Amber underneath. Sara’s is decorated with sunflowers, smiling birds and bees – she needs to spread her wings and find the sunshine under the cloud shadowing her following breast cancer treatment and a shock divorce. Poppy’s is pink and girly (the opposite of Poppy) – she doesn’t know it yet, but her edges are in for softening. And conservative Caitlin, a doctor like her father hoped, finds her room (aptly labelled Wynter’s Way) filled with stuffed animals.

A butterfly lives from moment to moment, so spread your wings, take life step by step, and let people see your beauty.

Aside from the rooms, Gypsy also leaves each woman a heartfelt and perceptive letter, which they find just when they need it most – a message of wisdom, hope and encouragement. Messages also come by way of visitors who guide the women to deeper understanding. These mysterious visitors add a magical and spiritual element to the novel, in addition to the enigmatic Mr Madgick and his associate Jesamiah Huckenstead. And then there’s the circus imagery such as the visitors from the travelling circus and Gypsy herself – all of this adds depth to the concept of changing seasons. This aspect of the book really resonated with me because I believe that wisdom comes in all different forms – we just need to be open to it. As the women relax and open up, they are able to confront the past and step forward.

Written in the third person, House for all Seasons allows readers to hear the distinctive voices of each woman. Not each is given equal space and some reviewers have noted that they felt they didn’t get to know Caitlin as well as the others. I see their point, but wonder whether that was deliberate. Caitlin seemed to find her way quickly – she didn’t seem to struggle as much within herself as much, whereas the other three seemed to have more emotional baggage to overcome. Certainly that makes sense when you compare their relationships with their parents to what we know of hers. I particularly enjoyed the way more was revealed to the reader as the seasons passed – looking back, there was plenty of foreshadowing of the secret that ultimately binds the four together, even right at the beginning.

House for all Seasons beautifully examines themes of love, friendship, family relationships and career, as well as some darker themes of cancer, domestic violence, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also about coming home – in this sense a physical place, but also a coming home to yourself; sometimes people build so much around their self (career, status, money, doubt and so on) that they lose sight of themselves. Most people come to a point in their lives where they question where they’re going, what they’ve done with their lives and it seems common about the late 30s to 40s. I know I can relate; author Jenn J McLeod came to that point herself when she swapped corporate city life for country life.

You can probably guess that I really enjoyed this novel. It had a lot to offer me as a reader – characters I could relate to, an enticing location and storytelling devices that resonated with me. I hesitate to call this chick lit, even though it’s on the light and easy side of reading, because it had surprising depth and warmth; it’s clear that this book is a book from the heart. Those who like their books warm and fuzzy will enjoy this.

A couple of other things that resonated with me – I had my “muck-up” day the same year Poppy and Caitlin did; calling dandelions “wet-your-beds” is straight from my childhood (but unknown in Perth where I live now); and the location. McLeod mentions places I could picture, like the Blue Mountains and Penrith (where I grew up). I might live in Perth, but Sydney is always “home”, no matter where I go. I don’t know about you, but when I read a book about a place I know well, a little feeling of familiarity warms my heart. And lastly, when I was a little girl I believed that if you blew on a dandelion flower and made a wish, it would come true. I remember wishing for a yo-yo and that wish did come true. It took about three years, and by then yo-yo’s were ‘so three years ago’, but still, it worked.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: Will sounds like he makes a great coffee with Big Bertha. I’d love a cuppa right about now.