The House Guest by Deborah L. Norris follows the life of Maggie Davis, a middle-aged widow living in a large Victorian home in 1950’s Nebraska with her daughter. The house also doubles as a bed and breakfast, so new boarders come in and out who gather around Maggie’s kitchen table for conversations about life and the latest gossip. As Maggie is still recovering from her husband’s tragic death, she has a lot to contend with in her own life, but she’s also a keen observer of her visitors. A scheme to swindle Maggie out of her property leads to a striking climax in which we learn there’s more to Maggie than meets the eye.
The House Guest is all about relationships big and small – the town of Tilden has no shortage of drama. Given that the novel takes place in the 1950s, it harkens back to a time before the internet, and even when TV was just starting – so conversation with family and friends was a major source of information and entertainment. It’s a pleasant reminder of yesteryear, and really does read like a time capsule of a certain time. Her description of the house also reveals a sturdiness and attention to detail that seems lost to the transience of modern life. It’s a quiet, old-fashioned novel – comforting in its calm attention to detail.
Built into this story is also a budding romance, while Maggie tries to recover from her husband’s death. And here lies the biggest strength in Norris’ novel. It weaves together many different elements: death, romance, gossip, crime, and small town life. In a book that’s in a large part about the small details of everyday life, there is also a much larger story at work. It’s a deceptively subtle book: before you know it, big events have transpired, all from this little bed and breakfast. If not big events, then big ideas about life. This is not a heavily plot-driven book, but it doesn’t need to be. Maggie’s observations about her boarders and her own life move the novel along quite quickly.
Maggie is at the center of all this interaction, and the novel only works if Maggie is an interesting and empathetic character. Norris lets Maggie do the talking, rather than using her as a springboard for the author’s ideas. And in a book that’s so much about conversations, the book manages to never become too talky. Maggie is such a fully-realized character, you sometimes forget you’re reading. Her story comes to a head in a surprising climax. Without giving away the ending, it’s a shocking one and it will make you re-evaluate the novel you’ve just read – perhaps even give the novel another go.
Though the novel is a period drama, it also shows people’s timeless and universal humanity. Each person who visits Maggie has a novel’s worth of story of their own, making The House Guest a lively and entertaining literary read focusing both on the small details of people’s lives and the big issues that shape us.
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