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A House Unlocked Hardcover – April, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Using "the furnishings of a house as a mnemonic system," Lively (Moon Tiger) takes readers on an imaginary tour of Golsoncott, the Edwardian country house her grandparents bought in 1923, home to several generations of her family. She recalls the gong stand in the entryway (a symbol of "vanished rituals" calling the family to its meals) and her grandmother's intricately worked sampler, with its row of "skinnies" (representing evacuated children boarding at Golsoncott during WWII) just a few of the many objects that "spun a shining thread of reference" to another era and way of life. In this combination personal/social history, Lively tells of how even the layout of the rooms spoke to changes in thinking over the course of the century. Children were quartered in a nursery wing, far from the adults, not at the center of household life as they are today. Grandfather had his dressing-room separate from grandmother's bedroom; the gender divide in the early 20th century was not a "distinction" so much as a "chasm." Surrounding the house were its gardens, reflecting in their botanical variety the progress of British colonial expansion and commercial enterprise. Family photos with the names of the dogs and horses penciled in recall riding's role in country life and inspire a digression on the history of foxhunting. Despite all this, Lively unlocks more than the house and its century; the author herself is here, a product of both her corseted grandmother and the more modern eras that followed. This is a quietly intelligent, oddly soothing meditation on modernity. (Apr.)Forecast: Fans of Lively's Booker Prize and Whitbread Award-winning novels, Anglophiles, memoir readers and students of material culture will gravitate toward this.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Whitbread Award and Booker Prize-winning novelist Lively's latest book is a mixture of autobiography and social history. The house in question is Lively's ancestral home Golsoncott in Somerset, England, acquired by her grandparents in 1923. In 1995, when the house had to be disposed of, its familiar objects spoke elegiacally of a way of life that had changed in the intervening years. The figures on the embroidered sampler, for instance, recorded the effect of historical events like the Blitz, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust on the inhabitants of Golsoncott; the potted meat jars served as a mnemonic for the state of the Church; and the bon bon dish evoked a social class served by domestic servants. Lively's writing is a palimpsest of past and present on which flit scenes of England's changing mores and rituals. Add to this a narrative graced with fictional elements and felicitous prose and the result is, to borrow Lively's own phrase, "a rattling good read," as absorbing as any of her novels. Highly recommended for all libraries. Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 225 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1st American ed edition (April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802117120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802117120
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.3 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,975,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Karen Sampson Hudson on June 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Penelope Lively's extended essay centers on the home of her grandmother, who was born in Victorian times and in Edwardian days was a young wife and mother, mistress of a country estate. Through her description of hundreds of items considered vitally necessary to the household, she ponders the cast-in-stone class structure, the assumptions which underlay the roles and behavior of men and women, the status of children, the notions of childcare, the sturdy outdoor motif of country living. The weather, she said, was simply ignored, and people went about what they meant to do, rain or sun. Hunting and gardening figured prominently; many social activities centered around
these activities.
Americans who know the work of writers like Agatha Christie will be familiar with this English world, dissimilar from our own country especially because of rigid class distinctions. A middle class household, Lively tells us, would be expected to employ servants. Her grandmother could spend hour upon hour doing rigorous physical labor in her gardens, but she felt much put upon when in later days, she was faced with doing her own "washing up" (kitchen dishes and pans). Lively also describes well the distance between genders, the attitude that men and women were utterly different, with different interests and orientations, unlike the more intimate, nose-to-nose marriages that began around mid-century.

Lively's essay is composed of personal perceptions, and although I find the limitations of this subjectivity its one drawback, I recommend it as an entertaining view to a vanished era.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I am a great admirer of Ms. Lively's work, both fiction and nonfiction, and I think this is a wonderful book. My only disappointment is that there are no photographs in the book--not even an author photo on the jacket cover! Photographs would have raised the book's price, I suppose, and it might seem childish to request them, but when there is such detailed and vivid description of specific objects (that embroidered firescreen, for instance) and people, I don't believe it is unreasonable for the reader to want even more--and to feel a bit cheated. Was it her decision, or a stingy move on the part of her publisher?
Still, I love this book and plan to re-read it many times.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Curious on January 4, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Lively does a great job of linking her ancestry and past to the physical structure and contents of the family's country home. Great detail and description of another time, but it becomes a bit ponderous. I raced through the first half of the book, and plodded through the last quarter.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Although I have always been and will be a fan of Lively's writing, I was somewhat disappointed in this book. Once or twice I thought she got way off the subject of the house. I would have appreciated more details about the house's inhabitants over the years, its contents and what all these meant to her at different times of her life. There could have been a few more details about things were done and what it was really like to be a girl in England during those times. These fascinating subjects were somewhat glossed over, I thought....
I would have enjoyed it quite a bit more had she included lots of photos of the house, gardens, rooms, the family heirlooms mentioned, old photos of relatives and retainers, and family events. These would have made the book so much more meaningful. Even if that had meant a higher price,I would still have bought it.
(It would be interesting to know what's become of the house since her family left it. Is it still a private home? Converted to a business of some kind? Being loved and kept up the way it once was?)
All that said, I very much enjoyed the things she DID write about, as well as her writing style. Perhaps some day she might reissue the book in a satisfyingly "illustrated" form.
More please!
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