My husband and I have a passion for fixing up houses. We started on our old Capitol Hill home, and in fact it was one of the greatest bonding exercises at the beginning of our marriage. Since we bought our Mercer Island fixer-upper, we’ve spent every possible waking moment working on it. Three years later I can look around and think, I remember the Sunday morning we woke up early and just decided to paint that wall purple, or I can’t believe how many times we stayed up late browsing the internet and pondering that light fixture. The house is already much more than a house—it’s a physical representation of memories that remind us of the good life we’ve built together.
I’ve had houses on my mind lately, maybe because of a house for sale on West Mercer Way. It’s a 1910 historic Mercer Island home, known as the Symphony House, and I often admired the gardens when I drive past it. Someone mentioned that the house’s original kitchen used to be in the basement, à la Downton Abbey, to accommodate the servants. That alone set my mind spinning with all kinds of possible stories. So this week I’ve been pondering some books that feature a home as one of the major characters. Here are a few that have always appealed to me.
Green Gables, the farm from Anne of Green Gables: Lucy Maud Montgomery visited her cousins’ farm when she was a child, and the house and land inspired her bestselling series about Anne Shirley, the imaginative red-headed orphan who grows up on a farm on Prince Edward Island. The real Green Gables received national park status In the 1930s, but the surrounding farmland has been developed into a fancy golf course.
Bramasole, the Italian villa in Under the Tuscan Sun: Restoring an old villa in the Tuscan countryside sounds satisfying. Removing brambles from an abandoned vineyard, discovering a fresco under whitewash in the dining room, and taking a morning walk by the neighboring Etruscan wall built in the 8th century B.C. wouldn’t be a bad way to live.
Tara, the plantation from Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s Tara was a fictional place, but it was loosely based on the Clayton County plantation in Georgia where Mitchell’s maternal grandmother spent her childhood. In the book, Tara grew from a small, four-room house to a large, rambling mansion of whitewashed brick and timber “built according to no architectural plan whatever, with extra rooms added where and when it seemed convenient.” When the epic film version came out, Mitchell was reportedly dismayed at how little Tara resembled her description in the book. Still, I wouldn’t say no to the movie version (pictured here).
The crumbling English castle in I Capture the Castle: Dodie Smith’s story of teenage Cassandra chronicling her life in the British countryside is just as charming as the old ramshackle castle that serves as the setting.
Houses in fiction aren’t about the architecture or the furnishings so much as the characters that inhabit them, and a smart author can use the descriptions of a house to imbue their inhabitants with personality as well as destiny. Watching a great house rise and fall and rise again, like Tara, is an apt metaphor for the rhythms of life. A crumbling house begs to be fixed up, appealing to our ambitious nature without forcing us off the couch to do the work ourselves. And a farm ripe with produce and flowers fills us with hope. We might not be able to physically go home again, but reading about a good house can give you a similar safe and cozy feeling.