Angela and Richard are estranged siblings reuniting for a holiday after the death of their mother. Almost strangers to each other, their families come together for a week-long holiday in an old (red) house. Angela—the major breadwinner in her family—has been experiencing moments of separation from “real” life as she imagines a rich life for her stillborn daughter Karen (who would have been celebrating her 18th birthday during the holiday). Her husband Dominic is unemployed and competing with his wife for the attentions and affections of their three children, Alex, Daisy and Benjy. Each child has their own set of fears and anxieties—with Daisy’s recent conversion to Christianity causing the most angst within the family. On Richard’s side, he brings his brand-new family with him—having recently gotten remarried after a divorce. With the remarriage, he has acquired a rebellious stepdaughter, Melissa. His new wife, Louisa, is trying hard to be supportive and make things work, but both find that their expectations for each other are not quite what they might have first thought. As for Melissa—well, she is the type who stirs up trouble wherever she goes, leaving a wake of destruction and anger in her wake.
This may sound like your “typical” dysfunctional family story in many ways. After all, estrangement, alienation from a spouse, teenage angst and rebellion are the staples of such stories. What makes The Red House different and unique is how Haddon chooses to tell the story. The book is broken down into seven “chapters” named after the days of the week—with each chapter representing a day of the vacation. Haddon then switches from each character’s point of view—from paragraph to paragraph at times—to tell their inner stories and advance the relationships and how they change and evolve during the course of the holiday.
As such, the book doesn’t proceed in a traditional narrative arc. We move from Daisy’s mind into Angela’s mind into Alex’s mind and so on—cycling through each character’s interior lives throughout the chapter. This approach to telling the story took some getting used to. At first, it was disorienting, and I struggled quite a bit to figure out whose mind we were in. The shift in character wasn’t always clearly delineated, and there were some sections were I wasn’t quite sure WHOSE mind we were in. Yet, as the story progressed, and I began to get a handle on each character and the story arc, the book started to read easier and this approach began to grow on me.
It was interesting to hear one character’s view of an event and then immediately cycle into another character’s mind and see it completely differently—to hear what was left unsaid between them, to hear the unstated regrets. By the end of the book, I was getting rather invested in each of these characters and their various problems. However, the book ends with the end of the holiday—leaving us behind and returning the characters to their lives, changed but still evolving, with everything unsettled and the future stretching out uncertainly before them.
If you enjoy books that take chances with how to tell a story, The Red House will most likely be an enjoyable and rewarding reading experience. If, however, you like your stories written in the traditional way, this might be a struggle for you and lose and frustrate you with its ever-shifting points of view. I appreciate when authors takes risks with how to tell a story, and I thought Haddon did a fine job with this novel. The fact that I ended up caring about these characters says it all.”