The History of Us
by Leah Stewart. Simon and Schuster, New York: 2013.
I picked this book up from the “new arrivals” section at the library because the jacket said it was about Cincinnati. (Also it has an epigraph from Middlemarch, which was only more encouraging, in my opinion). I lived in Cincinnati for four years, and am generally intrigued by books that are about places I’ve been or lived. And there is a lot of Cincinnati in this book, which is what made it fun for me to read. The main story happens to be largely about place and identity: the protagonist, Eloise, is a professor who is attempting to write her second book about that very subject while simultaneously figuring out whether to sell or keep the large historic house that she inherited. Eloise has lived there ever since she moved in when her sister and brother-in-law were tragically killed and Eloise was given care of their three children (along with the house to live in). Now, as the children – Theo, Josh, and Claire – are all post-college and trying to figure out what to do with their own respective lives, Eloise realizes that the house is costing a lot to maintain and perhaps it is time to move on.
But not without protest from the kids, who love the house dearly. And not without reason, from the way Stewart describes it: “The house was on Clifton Avenue near the intersection of Lafayette [meaning it was also near my school!]…It, annd the houses around it, had been built by men of note and wealth in the nineteenth century, when Cincinnati, Queen of the West, City of the Seven Hills, was as grand as its nicknames, when it meant something to be a river town….even the people who been there before were struck again by the old-fashioned loveliness of the place. The way the arches of the porte cochere conjured images of the elegant necks of horses, the skirts of ladies alighting from carriages. The way the columned, semicircular portico and the bay windows above it resembled the top tiers of a wedding cake…” I think I know what sort of houses Stewart means. They were huge, probably from old steel or shipping tycoons, with extremely big lawns, and looked very sturdy (for the winters) yet still elegant. Stewart and her characters are all too aware, though, that the majesty of the house does not match the current condition of the city: “In Cincinnati when locals asked where you went to school they meant what high school. In Cincinnati when locals met a newcomer they asked, ‘Why’d you move here?’ It was a dying city, no matter how Theo winced and protested when Eloise used that term.” Josh good-naturedly pokes fun at himself while on a date: “ ‘I lived in Chicago, during college and for years after. And I came back to Cincinnati. Voluntarily. For no reason.’ She laughed. ‘And that’s not normal?’ He shook his head. ‘Not at all…..but in Cincinnati you don’t have to work too hard to be stylish.’” No arguments there. Cincinnati is definitely Dansko clogs and fleece country, not that I had a problem with that, ever.
Stewart mentions plenty of Cincinnati landmarks, especially Hyde Park, Graeter’s, and the Ludlow art-houses and new age coffee shops. In fact, with so much Cincinnati pride throughout the book, I was pretty surprised that the [inf]famous Skyline chili never makes an appearance. But the characters walk all over plenty of other neighborhoods, including Northside, which is one that I never really visited.
There’s more in the book than just Cincinnati memorabilia, even if that was the most enjoyable part for me. Each of the four main characters is dealing with the transition time. The kids are all trying to find their perfect career path, and also on the brink of marriage or at least serious monogamy. Their aunt Eloise, who raised them since early childhood, is struggling with how or whether she will regain a new identity or purpose with the kids all “grown” so to speak. Stewart is full of prescient observations about this time of life, and also with this specific demographic, in which two of the adult children are still living “rent-free” in the big rambling house because, well, why not (they’re still single). With more choices in life seems to come not more but at least different complications, and Stewart is good with the brief yet insightful asides: “…Now she couldn’t think how to fill up three days. She’d always marveled at the calm with which characters in Jane Austen novels pursued their cloistered lives, filling up hours with visiting and stitchery, passing the time, just passing the time. Now it seemed to her she’d expended a lot of energy inventing purposes to disguise the fact that she was doing the same thing. That everyone was doing the same thing, just passing the time, blog posts [hello!] and emails and Twitter feeds instead of stitchery and whist.” Several characters are involved with the Cincinnati Ballet, and it’s interesting to peek into that seemingly mysterious and magical world of ballerinas.
Even as each of the four characters is involved in various forms of relationship or dating, I think the real love story is between Eloise and the three kids. As Eloise’s mother (the kids’ grandmother) reminds them, when the accident happened, Eloise “…was twenty-eight…Everything that mattered to you, just on your own, you’d have to set aside….you might never finish your dissertation. That would haunt you…” And Eloise, in moments of maternal [no other word for it] frustration, furiously thinks “she wanted her job back, and her little apartment…she was selfish and solitary.” And yet, having now had her family and raised the children, “the prospect of being left alone had become the worst she could imagine…” When Theo asks Eloise if “they” were all “worth it,” Eloise, after reflecting on a montage of little moments from the children’s lives, finds that of course “yes, for God’s sake….I promise you. I wouldn’t change my life” and that “it was an enormous relief to find that meant it, and that she could say it aloud.” So, spoiler alert, but all’s well that ends well here.
There’s a Talmudic principle called “kal v’chomer” which is usually translated “from easy to difficult” or “so much the more so.” It’s used to compare two cases to prove a point of law, as in “if X is true in case A, then kal v’chomer, so much the more so, would X be true in case B.” When my boyfriend-now-husband informed me that he had a good job prospect in Orlando and did I think that might be a good place to live, I wanted to use a kal v’chomer declaration: “If we were able to have fun and enjoy each other’s company in Cincinnati in the middle of February, kal v’chomer, so much the more so, will we be able to have a good life in Orlando” – Amen!