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Home Sweet Home

Three new books explore the reality (and the fantasy) behind our hankering for realty.

— Sheltered Images/Masterfile


Through Teddy's eyes, Meier painstakingly (verging on painfully) enumerates the Queen Anne's architectural details, including its Carpenter Gothic door surrounds, art nouveau fireplace, and "anaglyphic" wallpaper, defined here as "white, thick and pressed into shapes that were vaguely Moorish." (Readers with subscriptions to Architectural Digest will relish the substance such descriptions give their musings; the rest of us will have to rely on Google.) Inhabiting the right residence at last, Joy finally learns to live.

In Daum's real-life world, the plumbing fails, the garage is condemned, and her dog develops a predilection for coyote scat. In Meier's fictional one, administrative assistants and their bosses become fast friends, property values fluctuate in your favor, and the contractor you've hired to rehab your house stays after hours to discuss art over HotPockets. Despite these fact-vs.-fiction disparities, each writer clearly believes that a worthwhile adulthood—what Daum calls "personhood" and Meier "real life"—is possible only when you own your hat and the place where it hangs.

Unlike Meghan Daum or Joy Harkness, Carol Eron Rizzoli had already shouldered the trappings of adulthood: she had a good job editing art books, a stable second marriage, and three grown kids. But as she reveals in The House at Royal Oak—her memoir about choosing, at midlife, a road previously not taken—Rizzoli suffered from terrible headaches. Almost equally crippling was her nagging sense of stagnation. She too wanted to become, or at least to live like, somebody else.

This ineluctable force eventually compels Rizzoli to chuck her rock-solid livelihood for a riskier one: transforming a three-story horror show of a house on Maryland's Eastern Shore into a postcard bed-and-breakfast with signature muffins. "Every silver lining has clouds," Rizzoli explains, contemplating whether she and her husband, Hugo, are about to make a gargantuan mistake. "At least they will be new clouds."

Clouds they get, and these make for engaging if pitiable reading. Along with "everything that makes old-house fiends swoon"—notably a hidden staircase and original floors—come a troubled foundation, unreliable contractors who spend hours at the aptly named Bull Crap Café, and a yard abounding with syringes and condoms. The Rizzolis’ marriage bends almost to the breaking point as the renovation budget exceeds their estimates for time and cost, inspiring the pair to coin the "4-6 Rule": whatever home-renovation project you tackle will take four times longer than you plan—and cost six times as much.

For anyone tempted to make a similar move, Rizzoli serves up a bracing dose of how-to; the book concludes with a list of "Eight Good Reasons to Start a Bed-and-Breakfast and Seven Bad Ones."

As the authors of all three of these books acknowledge, no mere bad reason (or bad lending rate, or bad joist) has ever forced those in the grip of realty fever to face reality. "I didn't just want to do it," Daum writes about one of her moves, "I had to do it." Meier describes Joy as closing on the Amherst house in a "psychotic stupor," her rational intellect shocked at the emotions that compelled her to buy. And Rizzoli compares her forays in rebuilding and remodeling to gambling, "an obsession with addictive rewards."

Because things work out so well for our protagonists, however, it's hard to knock their shared conclusion that a beloved building can make mere mortals bow to its wishes. Different routes to their obsession they may have taken, but all three authors wind up celebrating their own particular edifice complex.

Jessica Allen is a
freelance writer (and contented renter) in New York City.


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