I’m not sure exactly when I first noticed “The Mansion,” but I remember walking or driving past it countless times during my childhood and adolescence, on the way to my Aunt Ruth's house. It was (I realize now) a moderate-sized Tudor house, which I regarded with deep longing every time I saw it. It was as if it was my house, but some awful trick of fate had kept my family from living in it. If we lived in that house, we would be happy. Not to be happy in a house like that simply wasn’t possible.
The house we actually lived in was in one of those subdivisions that sprang up after World War II, a little crackerbox of house on a row of other little crackerbox houses that looked more or less the same. We moved in at the height of the Baby Boom, the mid-fifties. At one point, there were 55 children on our block alone!
It was a long walk to…anywhere. The park, the library, school. Sometimes I would pretend I was walking home to The Mansion. The living room, with its brick fireplace; the dining room, with its big bay window; the cozy kitchen; the rec room. My own bedroom, of course, with a canopy bed, a window-seat. Books, a radio, and a huge bulletin board covered souvenirs and snapshots of myself having a fabulous time with all of my fabulous friends—who would magically appear when my life in this house, my real life commenced.
I was absolutely convinced that I would own this house someday. Weirdly, though, dream was so attached to the idea that living there would automatically right all the sad, unspoken problems of our family that I couldn’t imagine past living there with them, in some teen-magazine version of the perfect life.
Thursday evening, I visited my friend Connie Mitchell’s young adult literature class for librarians at IUPUI. It was fun because most the students had read several of my YA books and had great questions. One observed that both Wish You Were Here and Everything You Want had “dream houses” in them. But in WYWH, the mom got the house she dreamed of and seemed genuinely happy in it, while in EYW, the mom refused the house she used to long for, even though, having won millions of dollars in the lottery, the family could easily have afforded it.
(A connection I’d never noticed before, myself.)
“Why is that?” she asked.
Starting with The Mansion, I described my lifelong dream of the perfect house, which began with the belief that life lived in my mansion guaranteed a happy family and morphed, over the years, to what I think of as “house angst.” The closest I can come to defining it is, “What I know now about what real happiness is, coming up against that old longing.”
Even after I understood that the house I imagined wouldn’t really make me happy, even after I chose teaching part-time so that I could write seriously and chose traveling, which I’d also always longed to do, instead of staying put in the perfect house I still can't help wanting the house.
Sometimes not having it, knowing I’ll never, ever have it feels like grief.
Which is crazy because the truth is I don’t want it anymore. I really don’t.
One thing that interested me about writing about a family (very much like my own) winning the fifty million dollar lottery, as I did in Everything You Want, was the idea that having all that money would bring you smack up against your dreams. Suddenly, you could have…everything you want.
Actually, everything you thought you wanted. Which is a whole other ball of wax.
Abby, the mom in the book, who gets totally whacked out about the money, explains why she doesn’t want to buy the big, beautiful house she’d dreamed of for years—which I realized, writing it, was exactly the way I’d come to feel about my own dream house.
“[The house is] what I used to want, she says. "I wanted it so bad I could taste it. I’d drive by it sometimes at night, when the lamps were on, and I could see inside to the living room and I’d imagine us all there. It scared me, it seemed so real. Like it was a life I’d lost. Or the life I should have had…It’s too late…The last thing I want to do is buy a big house and have to decorate it, buy stuff to fill it up, get used to living in it.”
Honestly, I think one of the major reasons I write novels is because it’s like getting to live more than one life. The houses in WYWH and EYW are real houses I’ve driven past countless times over the years and fantasized about—and I got to own one of them by way of a story.
How cool is that?
I see now that I gave Jackson’s mom her dream house because the time in her life was right for it—and it actually did make her happy. But that happiness played off of Jax’s sadness at leaving the house where his divorced parents had last been happy together. So there was a cost.
There always is.
Abby might decide to buy that fabulous house in her post-book life, she might not. I don’t know. What mattered was at that juncture in the story of her life she understood herself well enough to know that she needed to figure out what she really wanted before making any huge decisions.
As for me, in my real life, now--I’ve lived in our little brick bungalow since 1969!
I have a sort of love/hate relationship with it. I love how cozy it is and how our whole history is in it. I hate that it doesn’t have a window seat or a breakfast nook. Or a screened-in porch, where I could sit and read and listen to the rain.
But if I didn’t live here, who would I be?