All the Houses – book review

We received a copy of this book for our review. All opinions are those of the reviewer

All the Houses

Author: Karen Olsson

Reminiscent of the prose of Peter Taylor, Alice Monroe and yet totally original, Olsson’s prose invites us into the panorama of vulnerability of one family and their secrets – and how each member plays their role within those vulnerabilities.  Stoic, intimate and nuanced in its details; forcefully honest, All the Houses presents the Atherton family: Helen, her two sisters Courtney and Maggie, and her ailing father.  At thirty Helen is still single and drifting in LA as an aspiring screenwriter.  When her father has serious heart surgery, Helen decides to return to her childhood home in Washington, D.C. and move in with her father until he recovers.  For she is the middle sister with no husband, no real job and time on her hands.

Yet, what Helen chases is her own identity although she does not know it yet – who she is without an older and younger sister framing her and a father who once was a White House executive who self-destructed when he was included in the Iran Contra fiasco under Reagan’s administration.  The family fell apart when her father fell apart. Helen was just a teenager and she needs to write her father’s story, for her father’s failure took down the entire family.

As Helen enters into the realm of family storyteller she discovers some of the story that her father refuses to tell: In 1985 her father and his best friend Dick Mitchell worked directly for Robert McFarlane, Deputy National Security Advisor, under President Ronald Reagan.  Oliver North was involved and the selling of arms to Iran brought about the Iran Contra debacle.  Her father was called as a witness and a peripheral member of McFarlane’s team and lost his job.  His best friend Dick Mitchell however was able to stay on top of the controversy and later committed suicide.  As Helen learns more she chases more.

Illuminating, sanguine and with a breathtaking view of what made one family disintegrate, as Helen recounts the past and present, she recounts her sisters’ roles in the family.  Courtney, her oldest sister was perfect, athletic, popular and aloof, like her father.  Maggie, her youngest sister, was only twelve and Helen thought Maggie was oblivious to the family disaster although she finds this to be false.  But what Helen discovers is that she took care of Courtney too, who was the most fragile of them all.

As Helen grasps the secrets and unfolds them, she finds the strength and love for her family and her father come back, all those feelings that she lost so long ago.  A family story about dysfunction and transcendence, All the Houses is a marvel.

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