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Bad Houses Paperback – October 29, 2013
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Failin, Oregon, is a town of left-behinds, a mecca for antique-shop junkies, and a wasteland of urban decay. Once someone manages to find a way out, they never look back. Twentysomethings Ann and Lewis aren’t so lucky; they’re each stuck with a mother unable to let go of the past. Lewis’ mother, who raised him alone under stringent house rules, has roped him into the family business of running estate sales. Ann’s mother, Danica, is a compulsive hoarder and routinely needs Ann to help take care of her until Danica starts dating a “feckless asshole” who is far angrier and more hurtful than he appears. But Ann and Lewis’ young love prevails, and they set out for a life on their own terms. McNeil’s black-and-white illustrations lovingly capture the rainy, kitsch-filled town of Failin and the expressive faces of the characters. Though the climax is a bit tidy—multiple momentous events seem to happen all at once—Ryan (Empress of the World, 2001) and McNeil’s engrossing story wonderfully illustrates Ann and Lewis’ triumphant step into the future. --Sarah Hunter
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The pen-and-ink art work by Carla Speed McNeil is beautiful and reminiscent of the best works of Alison Bechdel and Jaime Hernandez. Even the most minor background characters are imbued with enormous personality in their subtle renderings. Her drawings do more than simply illustrate the story--they are married to the storytelling itself.
If you are not impressed by the idea of a novel that has as its plot the story of people who buy, collect, hoard, or steal possessions, then you are grossly underestimating a thoroughly good read. This book is a new addition to my personal (and very short) list of books I find unputdownable.
Bad Houses is a story of ordinary people in an ordinary town (aptly named Failin), but the story makes clear that there is no such thing as an "ordinary" peron. A bitter son puts his aging mother in a dilapidated assisted living center. He begins to date Danica, one of the center's employees. Danica is a hoarder. Her daughter Anne feels suffocated by her mother's obsession with the objects from her past. Anne begins to date Lewis, a young man who wants to escape his mother's vice-like grip. Lewis works for his mother, conducting estate sales. He's never known his father. In the midst of all this family drama, we learn things about relationships among the characters that they don't know themselves.
Can people change their lives? One of the characters says that lives change all the time, and that's true, but they don't always change according to our plans. Some of the characters want to leave Failin but feel trapped by their circumstances. When should we hold on to things ... or people? When should we let go? Sara Ryan examines these questions in a surprisingly moving, thought-provoking story.
The lives of the characters weave together in a graphic novel that is elegant in its simplicity, insightful in its complexity. The sketchy illustrations add nuance to the text.