The House I Loved falls with dull characters

Author of Sarah's Key, on New York Times bestsellers list, has a new work of fiction out.

After two-and-a-half years, Sarah’s Key is still on the New York Times bestsellers list. Those who love the book, or the recent movie, will be happy to learn that author Tatiana de Rosnay has a new work of fiction, The House I Loved. It too has made its way onto the bestsellers list.

The House I Loved takes place in the 19th century when Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were razing parts of Paris to make way for a new grid of boulevards and concourses throughout the medieval city. Rose Bazelet is a widower whose home lies in the pathway of destruction. She and her neighbours stand to lose everything: their childhood homes and streets, their businesses and their shared history. The demolition of the old Parisian neighbourhoods took more than a decade to complete.

It may sound barbaric to destroy so many homes and neighbourhoods, but it was done in the name of progress. Widening narrow streets and pulling down damp buildings was partly done to clean up and modernize the city, enabling officials to install lighting and proper sewage. Many Parisians at the time loved the idea. Today many agree that Baron Haussmann’s foresight is what made Paris a truly great city.

Of course this kind of progress always comes with a human cost. Rose Bazelet is the face of that loss. Even though Rose’s own son had earlier died of cholera (a disease associated with poor sanitation), she decides she can’t put the benefits of the city above the individual loss of her home. She refuses to leave.

Expropriation is a messy and controversial policy, always coming with benefits for some and losses for others. As I read the book, I kept seeing parallels to Penticton’s most recent and high-profile land expropriation — homes purchased by the city to widen the road near the SOEC. As de Rosnay points out in The House I Loved, expropriation is much more than buying up land. The societal impact and financial spin-offs from this kind of action can carry on for years.

The subject matter of The House I Loved is fascinating. Unfortunately, de Rosnay’s storytelling is not. Her few characters are dull, and their motivations weak. The basic tenet of the book — that Rose was willing to die for a house that in many ways was a repository of bad memories for her — seems forced. I would have loved to hear the voices of Baron Haussmann, of the men who wielded the pickaxes and torches and of the Emperor himself.

Hopefully many of de Rosnay’s fans won’t be as dissatisfied as I was with this latest book. My hunch is that, long before Sarah’s Key’s sales dip, The House I Loved will rightfully fall from the bestsellers list.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.