- Love Done Wrong
Meredith Sue Willis
West Virginia University Press
252 Pages; Print, $19.99
The line between love and obsession is a dangerously thin one. We can be driven to protect the ones we love or to change them, to support them or possess them, all without suspecting any impure motives on our part. Their Houses, the latest novel by Meredith Sue Willis, provides a sincere and moving look at the difficulties of love, belonging, and family—with a dash of survivalist thriller-comedy to keep readers on their toes.
Their Houses is told through the voices of six narrators: sisters Grace and Dinah, Grace's doctor husband David, Dinah's born-again husband Ray, Dinah's daughter Aleda, and the sisters' childhood friend Richie. Richie, though the only non-relative in the sextet, is the catalyst pushing all six stories forward. Faced with crushing loneliness and an ever-advancing ALS diagnosis, Richie copes by plotting to move Dinah's family onto his West Virginia survivalist compound so she can serve as his caretaker. Since childhood, Dinah has been a talisman for Richie, an objectified stand-in for the eternal feminine that he will possess any way he can: "He didn't care if she lived in another house, if she had sex with her husband. He didn't care if she kept having babies. He believed he could sleep if Dinah was nearby." Here, love crashes across the line into obsession; a move the characters struggle to see, but the reader cannot ignore.
Beyond Richie's possessive pining, the novel weaves together multiple interpersonal subplots that nest neatly and skillfully into one another. Grace and Dinah's risky childhood lays the groundwork for Dinah's evangelical rebirth. In the same way, Grace's struggle with depression meshes into her marriage to David, a Jewish atheist doctor and rationalist. Thematic complexity builds throughout this web of subplots, incorporating mental and physical illness, addiction, religion, sexual desire, grief and loss, motherhood, small-town politics, and more. Despite this multitude of thematic concerns, the novel maintains a strong sense of cohesion—a tall order, and an impressive effect.
Part of this is thanks to the novel's skillful handling of its six narrators. Whereas other multiperspective novels provide the jerky start-stop feeling that frustrates many readers, Their Houses manages to keep the plot moving seamlessly forward. This is especially true toward the last third of the novel. When Richie's twisted plot ramps up and the novel transitions from family drama to Bond-like action sequence, the viewpoints continue to switch without shifting scene or action. This allows the device to work in its most effective sense: a means for providing different interior experiences of the same high-stakes moment, rather than as a contrived transition mechanism.
In addition to skilled narration and thematic complexity, Their Houses deftly handles the dynamics of religion in a small West Virginia town by blending comedy with sincerity. Ray's gung-ho evangelicalism is on occasion played for laughs, especially in his unexpected Doomsday preaching over a chili dinner: "'Buckets of blood pouring out the doors of the great slaughterhouse! Oh save us, Jesus!'" The fact that Ray turned to fire-andbrimstone preaching after transporting explosives for the anti-government Mountain Militia further undercuts the message, toying with the notion of religious hypocrisy.
However, the novel is willing to engage with religion beyond gentle mockery. Ray may be overly enthusiastic when professing "the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," but his enthusiasm is never seen as anything but genuine. He is a steadfast father to all his children and stepchildren; he "shed his smiles equally on the skinny brown-haired twins and little Benjamin when he came along, and Aleda who was not even his own." Though Dinah has been forced to alter her life to follow Ray's teachings, this is not presented as repression or a loss. Instead, Ray offers comfort and steadiness after Dinah's traumatic childhood. She responds warmly and affectionately to him, wanting "to crawl through the phone deep into his arms and chest...