“It begins with a child . . .” So opens Jane Mendelsohn’s powerful, riveting new novel. A classic family tale colliding with the twenty-first century, Burning Down the House tells the story of two girls. Neva, from the mountains of Russia, was sold into the sex trade at the age of ten; Poppy is the adopted daughter of Steve, the patriarch of a successful New York real estate clan, the Zanes. She is his sister’s orphaned child. One of these young women will unwittingly help bring down this grand household with the inexorability of Greek tragedy, and the other will summon everything she’s learned and all her strength to try to save its members from themselves.
In cinematic, dazzlingly described scenes, we enter the lavish universe of the Zane family, from a wedding in an English manor house to the trans-global world of luxury hotels and restaurants—from New York to Rome, Istanbul to Laos. As we meet them all—Steve’s second wife, his children from his first marriage, the twins from the second, their friends and household staff—we enter with visceral immediacy an emotional world filled with a dynamic family’s loves, jealousies, and yearnings. In lush, exact prose, Mendelsohn transforms their private stories into a panoramic drama about a family’s struggles to face the challenges of internal rivalry, a tragic love, and a shifting empire. Set against the backdrop of financial crisis, globalization, and human trafficking, the novel finds inextricable connections between the personal and the political.
Dramatic, compassionate, and psychologically complex, Burning Down the House is both wrenching and unputdownable, an unforgettable portrayal of a single family caught up in the earthquake that is our contemporary world.
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JANE MENDELSOHN is a graduate of Yale University. She is the author of three previous novels, including I Was Amelia Earhart, a New York Times best seller and a finalist for the Orange Prize; Innocence; and American Music. She lives in New York City with her husband and children.
They always celebrated important family events out of town, usually in another country. Here they were in a black car as it sped along the highway, now turning onto a side road, disappearing and emerging from under trees like a blinking light on a Global Positioning System screen moving across a continent. The tinted windows flickering with shadows and reflections, sparks dancing against the glass. From the outside, the family riding in the car was difficult to understand, the way the movements of a fire, even when viewed within the safe confines of a fireplace, seem random and uncontrolled. However, inside, from amid the licking flames of its interlocking relationships, the Zane family made its own fantastical sense. All families are complicated, but because their connections constitute the primary reality that its members know, some families create a world that to them is more comprehensible than the world itself.
From the point of view of the fire in the fireplace, the living room appears extraordinary, disorienting, and obscure. And the unexpected lashings of the blaze feel comfortable, ordinary, and known.
This time Jonathan had flown his driver over, so Vlad was taking Jonathan, Miranda, and Alix from the airstrip to the house in the same car. It was awkward for Alix because she had been conscious of the tension between her brother and his fiancée ever since they had begun their journey and they had been journeying for a long time: from New York to London, and then from London on a smaller plane, and now in this sedan, here, on a road in the British countryside lined with ancient trees whose branches and leaves so loose and careless reminded Alix of one of Jonathan’s silk ties, flung casually over his shoulder as it was at this very moment. She sat next to Miranda, while Jonathan had opted to sit up front with Vlad. Alix and Jonathan had two much-younger half brothers, nine-year-old twins, and Miranda had recently discovered that Jonathan was sleeping with their nanny. Miranda had threatened to call off the wedding, was still threatening, convincingly, to leave tomorrow and head to Sardinia where some friends had a place, but Jonathan had talked her into coming this far and now here she was sitting in the backseat being driven to the manor house which Jonathan’s family had rented for the occasion. Her eyes were red, but she was in possession of her usual perfect haircut and amused expression. Alix had no idea what Miranda was thinking, but she knew that Miranda was capable of impulsivity—and in this case maybe bolting was the rational thing to do—in spite of her preternaturally still surface. Miranda was like a big cat. Composed, she looked out the window at an angle which almost touched her disembodied yet vivid reflection and which made it appear to Alix as though her brother’s betrayed fiancée were in the middle of having a quiet conversation with herself.
Alix thinks that it is too late. Too late for her to have any kind of life other than this life dictated by her family circumstances, defined by these people trapped inside their pain. She does not believe as she rides in the car on the way to her brother’s wedding that anything can grow other than these old green trees which line the road. She is waiting for Ian, for the friend who knows her, who represents a time when she believed that things might grow. She sits in the car and waits for Ian.
Vlad, said Jonathan, could you pull over for a minute?
The rush of green coming at Alix made her eyes blur. So much beauty outside, so much misery in the car.
Thanks, said Jonathan. And now that we’ve stopped would you mind getting out for minute? Just to give us some privacy. You’ve got an umbrella, right?
Vlad nodded and reached down for his umbrella and opened the car door and stepped out and stood by the side of the road. Jonathan swiveled around in the front seat and said: Alix, you too, okay? Miranda and I have to talk before we get there.
No, not okay, said Alix. I don’t have an umbrella. It’s not like I don’t know what’s going on anyway so you can speak freely in front of me. Or get out of the car yourselves.
Alix, it’s not raining very hard.
You’re right. It’s more like a mist. So you guys won’t get too wet. Or you can huddle under Vlad’s umbrella.
Alix . . .
Miranda got out of the car without saying anything and walked several yards along the road beyond where Vlad stood smoking a cigarette.
You’re welcome. The fresh air will probably do you both a world of good.
Alix watched Jonathan follow Miranda down the road. The mist swallowed their outlines and as they met in the distance the image of the two of them through the watery window fused with the raindrops in a hazy, romantic picture. Alix could have imagined that they were very happily in love. They were, in their own way. Some people, thought Alix, are happiest when they are unhappy. Miranda was one of those people. I am too, thought Alix. And in a flash of insight that sped past her like one of the cars on the road, she understood: but some people are not like that, some people are happy when they are happy. A flash and it was gone. She wouldn’t have believed it even if you had been able to prove to her that she had had the thought herself. The memory of the idea was somewhere in her mind, but already Jonathan and Miranda were walking back toward the car together and Alix was aware of what their postures meant before her conscious brain had even registered that she had seen them. She didn’t know what Jonathan had said or promised or what Miranda had threatened or demanded. But Alix knew: Miranda would stay at least another day.
It’s on the way to the wedding that Alix remembers Poppy will be coming too. Alix doesn’t always look forward to seeing Poppy, her much-younger half sister who is also her cousin, but now Alix does, she looks forward to all that youthful energy and stupid beauty. Looking forward to seeing Ian and Poppy, Alix is able to bear the rest of the ride. Later she will remember the feeling she had in the car while thinking about Poppy and Ian, the mixture of despair and anticipation, and she will think that she’d had no idea what was coming. How could she have known? Why should she have known that Poppy and Ian would begin a flirtation at Jonathan’s wedding that would evolve into a romance and escalate into a tragedy?
That she remembers the moment at all will make her feel as though she must have had some awareness, some information. Information that her mind did not actually know it had. This makes her feel guilty. It is a familiar feeling.
The first time they saw S— they confronted pastoral green lawns and grazing sheep, many louche and unnaturally natural trees, and, after much winding road, a grand and stately stone house. As they pulled up, several men with headsets and strong arms arrived to open doors and whisk away belongings. One of them was the leader of the headset men and he welcomed everyone and gestured to the other men about valises and rooms. Jonathan checked his phone as he made the quick walk from the car to the vast foyer with its enormously high ceiling and checkerboard marble floor. He took a sharp inhalation and then exhaled slowly as he scrolled through his texts. Without looking up, he said to Miranda, and to the assembled in general, that the twins, Felix and Roman, would be arriving later in the day at the airstrip with their mother Patrizia, along with the new nanny, a Slavic girl. As he said “a Slavic girl” Alix saw that he ran his fingers through his hair and looked quickly sideways at Miranda. The last nanny had been Brazilian and Alix could tell that Jonathan hoped the word “Slavic” conjured something pale and unthreatening in Miranda’s mind. And his.
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