Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Stunning Story with a Strong Sense of Place: The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock | Goodreads

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Release: February 23, 2016
Source: Library
ISBN: 9780553497786
Alaska, 1970: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.
Wow. Where do I even begin with this atmospheric, deeply felt, masterfully woven powerhouse of a story? The Smell of Other People’s Houses is the epitome of everything I love about literary YA, and it’s one of those books that reminds me why I love reading.

Starting on the first page, this novel had me entirely enchanted by its vivid, tangible setting. From a short prologue set in 1959, when Alaska became a state, to the rest of the novel, which spotlights Fairbanks and Southeast Alaska in 1970, The Smell of Other People’s Houses creates one of the most immersive, breathtaking backdrops I’ve ever read. I love novels with a strong sense of place, novels that practically seem to build a real-life location around each reader, and this novel does just that. Drawing from her family’s four generations’ worth of life in Alaska, Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock paints a masterful picture of the climate, culture, history, politics, and more of her state, creating an atmospheric story perfect for a snowy day.

Equally well-developed is each character’s story and the coincidental connections between each. At the beginning of the novel, we have four seemingly-separate narrators: Ruth, whose pregnancy throws her life through a loop; Dora, who longs to trade her abusive and neglectful family for another; Alyse, who wants to follow her dreams without disappointing her family; and Hank, a stowaway on a fishing boat who just wants to get away. However, as their tales progress, their lives intersect in surprising, never-contrived chance encounters. By the end of the novel, The Smell of Other People’s Houses has become an exquisite tapestry of stories, one that was quietly woven while you were too enthralled by each individual character arc to notice.

The four main characters aren’t the only ones who are spotlighted, though. The Smell of Other People’s Houses also features several key background characters with distinct personalities. These secondary characters not only aid in the chance meetings of the four protagonists, but they also receive stories, aspirations, and histories all their own, helping to create an unforgettable ensemble.

Best of all, The Smell of Other People’s Houses accomplishes its incredible world-building and character arcs using only 223 pages of sparse-yet-powerful storytelling. Not a single word is wasted, and Hitchcock often conveys complex feelings and sprawling scenes using only a few carefully-selected phrases. I can’t recommend this novel enough for fans of books that capture intense emotions and character development in a compact storyline—like Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses was the first book I read in 2018, but I already know it’s almost definitely going to be on my best-of-the-year list in December. It’s quiet yet emotionally riveting, and it encapsulates beautiful themes of finding and choosing your family—deliberately and through chance. At times it will make you feel, as Ruth says, that your heart is all beat out, but it will bring you back to life with bittersweet happiness and hope. Especially if you like character-driven stories and novels that shine a spotlight on an uncommon setting, I cannot recommend this book enough.

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