book reviews

Town House by Tish Cohen: A Review

Not long ago I picked up two new books, Town House by Canadian author Tish Cohen and Little Bee by Chris Cleave. We were at Costco and I couldn’t resist. I’d eyed up Town House before, a different paperback edition, a few years ago, but I admit I can be wary of first novels (though I’m taking more “risks” and finding myself pleased).

Here’s a synopsis from Cohen’s site, because though I’ve been avoiding these, seeing blurbs on other review sites has convinced me they make sense and are helpful:

Jack Madigan is, by many accounts, blessed. Thanks to his legendary rockstar father, he lives an enviable existence in a once-glorious, but now crumbling, Boston town house with his teenage son, Harlan. There’s just one problem: Jack is agoraphobic. While living on his dad’s dwindling royalties hasn’t been easy, Jack and Harlan have bumbled along just fine. Until the money runs out…and so does Jack’s luck.

Suddenly, the bank is foreclosing, Jack’s ex is threatening to take Harlan to California, and Lucinda, the little waif next door, won’t stay out of his kitchen. Or his life. The harder Jack tries to keep Lucinda out, the harder she pushes her way in — to his house and, eventually, his heart. Things look up when the real estate agent, Dorrie Allsop, arrives so green she still has the price tag dangling from her Heritage Estates blazer. But even Dorrie’s overworked tongue can’t hide the house’s potential and, ultimately, a solid offer thrusts Jack towards the paralyzing reality that he no longer has a home.

To save his sanity, Jack must do the impossible and outwit the real estate agent, win back his house and keep his son at home. Town House is a sweet and serious look at one man’s struggle to survive within the walls of his own fears. And it’s through the very people he tries so hard to push out of his life that he finds a way to break down those walls and, eventually, step outside.

First off, I love the format of my edition of Town House, part of the Harper Weekend imprint. It’s a lovely matte cover but mainly the size and shape, about an inch and half shorter and half an inch or so narrower than a regular trade makes it light and easily portable as well as pleasant to hold. The paper is soft and fragrant, the binding such that the book can easily lie open. A nice paperback to travel with.

However, while it did accompany me day after day to work, I found myself unable to read more than a few sentences because I’m so interrupted there that I don’t really get a lunch, and thus I read this 305-pager in about two days over this past weekend. It’s an easy read—not fluff, really, but compelling and reminiscent to me of something like a romantic comedy movie. Yet it’s more than that. According to Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, it’s “everything you could ask for in a novel: touching, wry, bewitching, eccentric, and riveting to the end.” Which is all true, though “riveting” is a word I use sparingly and I think it a bit too strong in this case.

Town House was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean region), and deservedly so. What attracted me to the book in the first place was the cast of characters and a plot line that promised the development of said characters as they go through their ordinary days and also come together. Cohen writes her protagonist, Jack Madigan, son of 70s rockstar Baz Madigan and an agoraphobe with the uncanny skill of mixing perfect shades of white, in such a way that you feel as attached to him as you do to endearing IRS auditor Harold Crick in one of my favourite films, Stranger than Fiction.

This to me is one of the major signs of a good novel: relatively ordinary but different characters who can worm their way into your heart so that you can relate, empathize, care about what happens to them, want to spend more time with them. Indeed, I feel somewhat bereft now that I’ve finished the novel, as though I’ve just spent quality time with a friend whose presence I’ve just left.

The writing is very good, the content often funny, the relationships and interactions between characters, who are often quirky or idiosyncratic, well done. A few characters, like Jack’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend, are a bit too cliché for my taste, but they work. It’s a novel peopled with believable human beings, flawed and vulnerable yet there are those who stand out somewhat heroically, bringing much needed hope into play. There are failures and triumphs, of course, and survival lessons from those you might least expect.

Only one complaint, really: a couple of times the situations grew a bit forced in order to make the plot direction work. I can think of two examples, both near the end of the novel, and the ending in particular was disappointing because it seemed a bit too…romantic, as well as improbable. Something about it smacked of a bit too much serendipity, and while I’m not against that by any means (in fact, one of my favourite romcoms is Serendipity), in this case things just felt a little bit too…neat. I can’t think of the word I’m looking for. At the same time, it’s not as though absolutely everything works out the way Jack would like, but still.

On the other hand, the plot led to the particular wrapping up of things from the beginning, really, and nothing was unexpected. Perhaps more important, in getting us to the end the novel was a gentle but poignant mixture of humour and heart that I found difficult to put down. As Harper’s imprint suggests, it’s great weekend reading.

In fact, perhaps one weekend next year I’ll be watching it, too. I’ve just done a bit a research and found out that Town House has been scripted by director John Carney, and the movie, due out in 2011, might star The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis and Amy Adams. Word is the story is only only loosely based on Cohen’s novel, but she says the script is perfect. Now, of course, I’m curious! It’s always interesting to see film adaptations of books I’ve read. It gives me an idea for a Biblio-sponsored event: Books & Their Movies series, with viewings at the local Empire Theatre. If properly planned, people will buy the books that will be announced ahead of time and then buy tickets to see the corresponding films (with popcorn!). Afterward, we can have a discussion based on the readings and viewings. Exciting! My mind is already racing with titles!

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