By Meghan Daum
Alfred A. Knopf. 256 pp. $24
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Reviewed by Susan Balée
Meghan Daum has been making me laugh for nearly 20 years. She writes essays for the New Yorker and a column for the Los Angeles Times. A few years ago, she plunked herself down in Nebraska and wrote
The Quality of Life Report
, a funny novel about the American heartland.
Any topic that takes her fancy, from Internet dating to writers' conferences to playing the oboe, becomes grist for her snarky mill. She's got the wit of Molly Ivins and the brains of Mary McCarthy, but unlike these dead icons, she can't be pinned down to any region, religion, or political affiliation. Instead, Daum is the essential Generation X-er. Although pushing 40, Daum radiates the eternal youthfulness and the fear of commitment that define her cohort. She spent the first three decades of her life terrified of being tied down - to a job, a lover, or a place. However, committing oneself to at least two of those three items is the mark of a grown-up, and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the memoir of how the wandering Ms. Daum finally put down some roots.
It's also the story of America's obsession with real estate and the colossal illogic on the part of bankers and buyers that precipitated the housing-market crash of the new millennium. Daum, naturally, bought her L.A. house in 2004, right before the bubble burst. She observes, "I may make my payments, but I suspect there isn't a terribly wide gulf between people whose houses have been repossessed and people who, like me, simply seem possessed by whatever version of grown-up life we were hoping to play out by playing house."
Her story began with her mother's desperate desire to escape lower-middle-class Midwestern roots. Mom's fantasies of escape dated to her discovery of the New Yorker in a boyfriend's Carbondale, Ill., home. All her longings became focused on a life of art and culture in New York, but she and her musical-composer husband made it only as far as Ridgewood, N.J., where Meghan grew up. So definitely not Manhattan. A dutiful daughter, Daum made her goal fulfilling her mother's dream by living in an Upper West Side prewar apartment. She finally manages this in her 20s, but only by acquiring a tribe of roommates.
I spent the middle of my 20s living 15 blocks north of Daum's apartment in a Columbia-subsidized prewar between Broadway and Riverside. My life as a student was much duller than Daum's as a hard-partying, low-paid magazine worker. Although I grinned, I can't relate to her edict that "you haven't lived in New York City until you've thrown up out the window of a taxi or wanted to put a bullet in your head because you're so envious of someone else's square footage." I do, however, remember dinner-party discussions about housing, and I knew students who spent months sleeping on other people's futons while waiting to get a few square feet to call their own.
For Daum, time passes, as do dates and jobs and roommates. She moves dozens of times, and finally decides to cave in to her lifelong love of Little House on the Prairie by relocating to - gasp! - Nebraska, which provides cheap rent, a cute but "aging slacker" boyfriend, and a few years of living and loving in a farmhouse with a sagging porch and a great view. Daum drinks a lot on that porch and writes a novel. Miraculously, the manuscript sells and she makes a lot of money. It's time to move again and finally buy a house. Daum decides that Los Angeles is the place she must put down roots because "California was grown-up land. I could feel it in so many ways. . . . I was now, for once and at last, in concert with my surroundings . . . After fourteen roommates, one tyrannical building super, one live-in boyfriend, and two dogs that weren't mine, I was finally the queen of my lovingly decorated castle. It was me and my furniture against the world."
Daum's fairy tale, like the original German ones, has a bittersweet ending. However, it's a fitting one for this memoir about a girl who craves "domestic integrity. This integrity has something to do with being able to not feel like an impostor in your home, and therefore your life." Like the two that preceded it, Daum's latest is a great book.