Synopses & Reviews
From the acclaimed author and columnist: a laugh-out-loud journey into the world of real estate—the true story of one woman’s “imperfect life lived among imperfect houses” and her quest for the four perfect walls to call home.
After an itinerant suburban childhood and countless moves as a grown-up—from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska; from the Midwest to the West Coast and back—Meghan Daum was living in Los Angeles, single and in her mid-thirties, and devoting obscene amounts of time not to her writing career or her dating life but to the pursuit of property: scouring Craigslist, visiting open houses, fantasizing about finding the right place for the right price. Finally, near the height of the real estate bubble, she succumbed, depleting her life’s savings to buy a 900-square-foot bungalow, with a garage that “bore a close resemblance to the ruins of Pompeii” and plumbing that “dated back to the Coolidge administration.”
From her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams, Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. With delicious wit and a keen eye for the absurd, she has given us a pitch-perfect, irresistible tale of playing a lifelong game of house.
From the Hardcover edition.
In this laugh-out-loud personal journey, acclaimed author Meghan Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. From her teenage apartment fantasies and her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams and the bungalow she eventually buys on her own, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the true story of one woman’s quest for the four perfect walls to call home.
About the Author
“Quickened pulse, night sweats, insomnia . . . all the depredations of a love affair gone wrong. Anyone over the age of 30 who lived, worked or breathed in any proximity to the real estate market in the last decade will immediately recognize the signs of house lust. But I spent years as the editor of House & Garden,
and I don’t think I ever encountered a case like Meghan Daum’s. . . . Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House
adroitly manages to be funny, charming and shocking in its brutal frankness about an obsession that threatens to upend sanity and bank accounts. Luckily, as was not
the case for so many caught in the national grip of cheap mortgages, Daum’s is the story of a love too big to fail. . . . She is smart about what makes a house beautiful in the eye of the beholder. . . . There’s a mania about moving that cleverly masks a dread even more profound than that of not being human, and that is the dread of not being married. . . . Daum promises she doesn’t intend to write a book with the happily-ever-after banality that’s beginning to get on my nerves. Is it becoming a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a good house must be in search of a husband? It speaks volumes in Daum’s favor, then, that when she does fall in love, this reader took as much pleasure in it as I hope she will someday, when she isn’t preoccupied with the important things like bursting closets, crammed bookshelves, and the detritus of combining two households, two lives. Daum has a rare gift in her ability to keep readers laughing through her own tears. Among the many wonderful things about houses is that they are such handy metaphors for so many things: love or loss, renewal or collapse. . . . Daum revels in all of it. There are times you want to sob with her, as she bloodies her knuckles and throws out her back, wrenching her reluctant house closer to its best possible self. Daum’s journey from the buying of a house to the making of a home is arduous. There are times when it all gets so scary you hold your breath before crossing the threshold with her. But her spirit is generous, her writing is buoyant, and her heart is open to all the ways in which a house holds the key to happiness. Perfection has nothing to do with it.”
—Dominique Browning, The New York Times Book Review
“A delightful dissection of the real estate obsession that’s a hallmark of our age, recession or no.”
—Sara Nelson, O Magazine
“For all the talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. . . . The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interior magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV’s low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and ‘For Sale’ signs as evocative as novels. . . . A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts. Although Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn’t a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits. . . . Like a traditional comedy, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House ends with a wedding and the promise of settled adulthood. Except that Ms. Daum and her husband barely fit into the tiny rundown place she eventually purchased . . . She hopes to move to some place bigger, some place truly their own. What else should we expect from a child enraptured by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories, where every book starts or ends with a move? Moving is the American way. If your American dream involves a house, it’s probably not the one you’re living in right now.”
—Virginia Postrel, The Wall Street Journal
“Honest and endearing . . . richly drawn . . . Daum captures the now-gone moment when real estate became a national obsession, chronicling the shared madness of those who could only take breaks from watching HGTV to discuss closing costs. . . . As she moves from coast to coast and in between, Daum is consistently relatable, [and her] metaphor of romance makes perfect sense in the context of real estate. . . . Her descriptions of [Los Angeles] neighborhoods are meticulous enough to play Name That Intersection. . . . As she moves from house-lusting to house-buying, and, shortly thereafter, to sharing a home with a partner, she struggles with the idea that she doesn’t want to live with someone so much as to have a witness to the beauty of her home. Her boyfriend moves in and they put the spare mattress out on the lawn for pick-up—in the same 24-hour period that the Google Earth satellite photographs her home for virtual eternity . . . ”
—Chris Daley, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Suffused with humor and desire . . . Offbeat yet utterly compelling . . . Life Would be Perfect If I Lived in That House is Daum’s meditation—alternately whimsical, philosophical and psychologically probing—on her unquenchable lust for the ideal home. . . . Daum’s hilarious co-star is her mother, who could never resist an open house. Daum attributes her compulsions and her strong identification with where she lives to her mother’s attempts to ‘cope with identity confusion that plagued our immediate family like a skin rash.’ . . . Like her mother, who found a means of expressing her thwarted ambition through decor, the peripatetic Daum finds her own perfect means of expression: this enchanting, compelling memoir on the impossibility of resisting an irresistible object of desire.”
—Susan Miron, The Miami Herald
“Daum recalls a life of relocation, falling for and then abandoning residences like a string of disappointing lovers. . . . As this charming book proves, settling down is never as much fun as the chase—especially when your rickety home’s value starts to plummet. Throughout, Daum tackles real estate—or, more pointedly, the fixation, anxiety and magical thinking that often accompany it—with wit and a gift for self-parody. Her analysis of her parents’ New Jersey home has the interpretive flair of Joan Didion. Her prose has smarts, style and personality, but never turns pretentious . . . It’s a pleasure to read this author as she revisits comic misadventures and wrangles with a hot-button topic.”
—Michael Miller, Time Out New York
“What’s more fun than falling madly in love with a piece of real estate? Nowhere is this more vividly described than in Meghan Daum’s wry new memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, a (nearly) man-free romance that could easily spark a new genre: My House, My Self. Here Daum exposes the modern real-estate-mad female underground, where open houses (visited in rabid two-women teams) are a seasonal blood sport, Zillow is a verb, and where remodeling a collapsing farmhouse into a writer’s retreat could instantly, we imagine, transform us into the George Plimpton of the prairie . . . ”
—Sandra Tsing Loh, The Atlantic Monthly
“Daum has been making me laugh for nearly 20 years. . . . She’s got the wit of Molly Ivins and the brains of Mary McCarthy, but unlike these 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 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. . . . A great book.”
—Susan Balée, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Delightful and vivid . . . Cleverly framing her real-estate frenzy alongside the nation’s, Daum takes you on in her quest for a home—and a more profound sense of self. Her journey is nuanced and smart.”
—Jessica Grose, DoubleX.com
“Funny, thoughtful, acutely self-aware [and] self-deprecating . . . In 2004, before the U.S. real estate market turned Chernobyl, Meghan Daum bought her first house. The property cost more than she had budgeted, came with an uninsurable garage reminiscent of the ruins of Pompeii, and had an electrical system visitors could smell. . . . The then-single woman describes the loss of her real estate virginity at age 34: ‘Like a girl who cares more about being married than who she’s married to, I swallowed my pride and signed the first set of papers.’ The analogy is perfect. Daum’s consummation with [her] mortgage is as avidly anticipated as a Jane Austen wedding. Indeed, if the novelist was writing today, her heroines would be like Daum: independent women who dream of property, not matrimony; who troll Craigslist for hot real estate prospects, not men; and who think in terms of square footage, not karat size. . . . This real-estate-cum-addiction memoir is laced with clever aperçus. Daum’s insight into decor media [like HGTV], for one, is bang-on . . . And her relationship with the man who’s now her husband inspires insights into real estate’s role as a marital catalyst: she coins ‘nohabitation’ to describe the dislocating nomadic travel between houses that couples engage in before deciding it’s easier and cheaper to just move in together. Her now fixed-up starter home is on the market, she reports, and she and her husband are shopping for a new house—and with it a life that’s just a little more perfect.”
—Anne Kingston, Maclean’s
“This timely memoir captures a Los Angeles Times columnist’s restless need to find the perfect place of her own, before the free-falling housing market turned the real estate dreams of many Americans into nightmare of ‘home moanership.’ . . . She vividly recalls how her housing compulsions and all their accompanying fantasies repeatedly had her riding a crazy-making pendulum. What makes it all work is that Daum happens to be a fine writer—candid, reflective, stylish, fun and a bit prickly. Throughout the book, she offers an unflinching portrayal of her anxieties and her aspirations. . . . When she finally realizes that a house is not what will make her whole, you can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief.”
—David McFadden, Associated Press
“A wonderful new book from one of my very favorite writers. It’s like having a long, glorious, no-holds-barred conversation with your smartest, funniest friend about all the juicy topics: real estate, class envy, bad dates, family identity, and the discrepancies between the lives we aspire to and the lives we lead. I’m awed by Daum’s honesty and talent.”
“Injecting a fresh, easy-on-the-economic-analysis and super-smart-and-funny voice into the conversation about why we feel the way we do about homes and house hunting comes Meghan Daum . . . Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is less real estate market analysis than a memoir of a real estate-obsessed 21st-century woman—with all the powers of that demographic’s light, charming and sometimes self-deprecating self-observation. . . . It’s a welcome breath of fresh air that she doesn’t spin a tale of woe—it’s more a tale of want. . . . Daum’s ability to laugh at herself and her home-obsessed foibles, and her willingness to share them with us so that we can laugh, too, is both medicinal and miraculous—an antidote to the ubiquitous recessionary yuck and gloom to which I, for one, am ready to bid adieu.”
—Tara-Nicholle Nelson, REThinkrealestate.com
“Moving in every sense of the word, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is a book for anyone who has ever searched for happiness in the floorboards. As a tour guide to the perils of real-estate obsession, Meghan Daum is unfailingly charismatic, tender and honest. If this book were a house, I’d rent a U-haul, fill it with praise and move in tomorrow.”
—Sloane Crosley, author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake
“As you would expect from this author, Meghan Daum’s memoir is witty, stylishly written, sophisticated and supremely entertaining, but it also strikes chords of deep feeling (such as melancholy and loneliness) that are very moving and haunting.
“This love-hate relationship [between house and owner] is what Meghan Daum describes so effectively in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. But the ‘hate’ part of that relationship isn’t really hate as much as it is a insatiable hunger to be rooted some place stable, intransient—and with killer hardwood floors.”
—Yvette Benavides, San Antonio Express-News
“Meghan Daum takes the absorbing subject of shelter and runs with it, or rather, lives with it. Her personal odyssey is funny, sharp and charming.”
—Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten-Year Nap
“For everyone who puts a coffee cup down and ten years later it’s still in the same place, there’s someone who cannot stop looking for the Great Place, the Right Place. In her memoir, Meghan Daum takes us on a darkly funny and ever-more-revealing journey into a certain relationship with shelter—that of relentless obsession.”
—Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black
“Meghan Daum’s writing never fails to entertain and enlighten. She is comedically self-deprecatory and yet always so smart and insightful about her life and what it’s like to be in America in the twenty-first century. This latest book is further testimony to her incredible gifts—her lovely prose, her fantastic sense of humor, and her hard-earned wisdom.”
—Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!
“Daum is a master stylist who has long shown the ability to write pithy, perceptive comments about both our culture and herself, often entwining the two. In this book she writes with such complexity, genuine warmth, and also cold-eyed realism about herself, her family, and, inevitably, America, that it is breathtaking and marvelous. Her writing is one of a kind and a total joy.”
—Thomas Beller, author of The Sleep-Over Artist and co-founder/editor of Open City
“In this funny, horrifying (she came this close to buying a place near a roaring interstate because she was smitten with a landing) achingly honest memoir, Daum explores the way we wrap our identities in our surroundings, at one point wondering, ‘Did the house look sexy on me?’ Home truths, indeed.”
—Amanda Lovell, More
“Pitch-perfect . . . Witty . . . Glowing writing . . . [Daum] manages to infuse her story with an unpretentious honesty that is often laugh-out-loud hilarious while plumbing our emotional real estate investments. In doing so, she has turned what could have been a standard ‘chick lit’ memoir into a deeply told tale of how real estate has come to own us in its deepest, darkest, most emotional roots.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I banged the garbage can against an outside wall, and a piece of stucco about the size of a sheet of paper came ever so slightly loose. When I touched it, it fell gently into my palm. It was as if the house were giving me a lock of its hair, or perhaps coughing up phlegm. I was concerned, but it also happened that I was really busy that day. I just couldn’t get into it with the stucco, not right then anyway. Also, I was coming up on my five-year anniversary of owning the house, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in five years, it’s this: if a piece of your house falls off and you don’t know what to do with it, throwing it in the trash and forgetting about it is a perfectly viable option. And it so happened that the trash can was right there. Once upon a time I would have made a beeline to the yellow pages to look up “stucco replacement,” but I’ve come a long way since then.
So has the house. I bought it in 2004, and as I write this, it’s supposedly worth $100,000 less than what I paid for it. By the time you read this, it will probably be worth even less than that. I try not to care because if I cared too much, or even thought about it too much, I’d go insane. I’ve spent enough time here being insane, believe me. I was insane when I bought the place, and I went even more insane afterward. Then again, the whole world was high a few years ago. The whole world, or at least the whole country, was buying real estate and melting it down to liquid form and then injecting it into veins. For my part, it’s tempting to say I succumbed to peer pressure, but it was really much more complicated than that. There is no object of desire quite like a house. Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: “Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.”
I’m writing this book in homage to that sentiment, which is to say I’m telling the story of a very imperfect life lived among very imperfect houses.
A large part of that story, of course, involves the house that is now falling apart in my hands, the gist of which is basically this: In 2004, I was among the nearly six million Americans who purchased real estate. Like roughly a quarter of them, I was a single woman (single men don’t buy houses nearly as often), and I was making the leap for the first time. Again, this was a time when the real estate market had reached a frenzy that surpassed even the tech boom of the mid-1990s. It was scarcely possible back then to attend a party or even get your teeth cleaned without falling into a conversation about real estate: its significance, its desirability, its increasing aura of unattainability. My dental hygienist, for example, had robust opinions about reverse mortgages.
Like many of my friends and neighbors, I attended so many open houses and made such a complete study of the Multiple Listing Service that the homes on the market seemed like human beings. We discussed the quirks and prices of these properties as though we were gossiping about our neighbors. At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001. As in those chilling days, we could literally speak of nothing else. People who had never put a thought toward home ownership were being seduced by record-low interest rates and “creative” financing plans. People who’d happily owned their homes for years were doubling and tripling their equity and suddenly realizing they could cash out or trade up. If the jolt of the fall of 2001 had rocked our sense of safety to the nub, the real estate craze that followed a few years later gave us a reason to wager that the very notion of security, at least the kind made of four walls and a roof, was something that could be purchased, often without good credit or a down payment.
As caught up in all this static as I was, none of these factors had much to do with the reason I depleted most of my savings to buy a nine-hundred-square-foot bungalow for more than four times the money my parents had paid for the two-story, four-bedroom house I grew up in. At the time, I might have said otherwise. I probably insisted (I say “probably” since, as with all major life decisions, the relevant details tend to get lost in the mix; I do, however, remember the outfit I was wearing—a tank top with a strange and rather awful floralpatterned skirt—when I signed the escrow papers) that I was making an investment, that I was “putting my money in the safest place,” that I was tired of dealing with landlords. All of that was true, but it was only years later that I could see there was something else going on entirely. I bought the house because I was thirty-four years old, had been self-employed most of my adult life, had never been married, was childless, had no boyfriend nor any appealing prospects in that department, and was hungry to the point of weakness for something that would root me to the earth.
Of course, that’s as good a list as any of reasons not to buy a house. Freelance writers haven’t historically been the best risks for mortgage lenders, and the absence of a romantic life, be it by choice, circumstance, or a narcissistic refusal to participate in Internet dating (which I suppose counted as a choice), doesn’t on the surface seem relevant to the acquisition of property. But most people have a hard time separating the self from the home, and I was no exception. More than just shelter for ourselves and for our loved ones, more than just “the biggest purchase you’ll ever make,” a house is a repository for every piece of baggage we’ve ever carried. Our homes protect us from the outside world, show off our taste, and accommodate our stuff. Perhaps above all, they prove to ourselves and to the world that we’ve really and truly moved out of our childhood bedrooms.
But what do we do when a house makes life impossible? What if it threatens to destroy us? What do we do when the market tanks, the hillside collapses, the sub-prime mortgage comes home to roost, or we’re just too tired to keep working the extra jobs and overtime now required to afford what used to be a staple of middle-class life? Do we stick it out? Do we cash out? Do we return to the life of a renter, with its aura of tapestry-covered, grad-student-style impermanence? Does selling your house mean losing your independence or gaining it? Does giving it up mean giving up on yourself?
Mercifully, I’m not losing my house to the bank. I have an old-fashioned thirty-year mortgage, and I make my payment every month. And despite the stucco incident, the property has hardly fallen into disrepair. It’s true that at times home ownership has felt like a bigger burden than I imagined even in my most nail-biting pre-purchase moments. It’s true that the money I’ve spent on plumbers and electricians and roofers and tree trimmers might ultimately have been put to better use on Hawaiian vacations while I remained an innocent renter. But the truth is that it wouldn’t have really mattered. The cash would have slipped through my fingers anyway. Over the years, I’ve put preposterous amounts of energy and money into the places I’ve lived, even rentals. I’ve also put preposterous amounts into moving, storage, lost security deposits, and gas money for drives halfway across the country and back as I tried to figure out exactly where and how I wanted to live and whether my fitful bursts of house lust would ever translate into something approximating “settling down.”
But this book is not just the story of the house I bought. It’s also not just the story of other houses I tried to buy or of the disorienting yet sometimes hilarious effects of having a mother who seemed to rearrange the furniture more often than she
changed her clothes. And while I could easily embark on a blow-by-blow of repairs and improvements and zombielike trips to Home Depot, while I could rehash every detail of faulty wiring or of ornery workmen or rats that feasted on the orange tree in the backyard, I’m going to try to keep a lid on that particular pot. That’s the standard stuff of home-buying stories, and having now devoured more home repair manuals and sybaritic shelter magazines than the sum total of my college reading, I’ve come to think it’s about as interesting as people recounting their dreams over the breakfast table.
Instead, this is the story of what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up not in who you are or how you live but in where you live. It’s than committing to a partner or doing my job or even the ostensibly obvious fact that the sun would rise and set regardless of whether my name was on a mortgage. And though I can’t presume to be able to shed new light on what, in precredit-crunch days, possessed vast numbers of Americans to ignore all logic and purchase houses they couldn’t begin to afford, I do think we were all touched by the same strain of crazy. 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. This is the story of my lifelong game of house.
The first house I ever had fantasies about was a wood-and-glass octagon occupied by an imaginary person whose name I’d decided was Malcolm Apricot Dingo. The way I remember it, the house (which was real) looked more like a giant lemonade pitcher than a place where people might actually live. It sat on a weedy plot of land on a winding street, a tall, barrel-like structure that at certain times of day and given a certain arrangement of the window shades provided a view all the way through to the backyard. I was six years old, and this was a source of unending delight; the house made me feel as if I had X-ray vision, as if I were bionic.
Twice a day, my mother drove me past this house on our twenty-minute drive to and from my school. The commute had been made necessary by our recent move to a new neighborhood and my mother’s last-minute decision, amid my begging and tears, to allow me to attend first grade at the same school where I’d attended kindergarten. The summer before, my parents had bought their first house, a yellow brick bungalow in a state of nearly unfathomable decay, and for all of my mother’s enthusiasm about the new neighborhood she hadn’t taken the final step of forcing me to attend school in the proper district. In retrospect, this deferment of the inevitable seems by turns tender and useless. I’d transfer to my zone-appropriate school the following year. The year after that, we’d pack our belongings in a rented Ryder truck and move seventeen hundred miles to yet another town and another school, where I’d stay for three years before another local move necessitated another clumsy navigation through a brine of strangers.
But in the year of the octagonal house, in those ten months when I passed it twice daily, each time announcing to my mother (I have an explicit memory of this, though she only vaguely recalls it) that Malcolm Apricot Dingo was watching us from behind the glass of what I was sure was his second-floor study, that having glanced up momentarily from his very important work he was waving to us, and that it was only polite that we wave back, I knew nothing of the gut-rattling chaos of being the new kid in school. I knew nothing of eating lunch alone while gamely pretending to read a book, of the indelibly bad impression that can be made from wearing the wrong clothes on the first day of school, of trying to forge friendships with people who’ve had the same best friend since before even the last time you were the new kid.
I also had little territorial frame of reference other than the lush, heat-stroked hill country of Austin, Texas, where we’d moved when I was three and where we’d stay until I was nearly nine. Though I was born in Palo Alto, California, and had trace memories of suburban Chicago, where my family had done a six-month stint when I was a toddler, the bulk of my early childhood was pure Texan. I had a drawl; I said “y’all” and “ahs cream” and assumed that everyone else in the world did, too. I also assumed that every summer day everywhere topped out at 108 degrees and that all cockroaches were the size of turtles and that armadillos were a common form of roadkill. My brother, who was four years younger than I, had been born in Austin in 1974, making him a native Texan. The retired couple who lived next door and whose college-aged children I worshipped were like surrogate grandparents. The city was also home to my friends, my babysitters, my school, my cat—in other words, everything that mattered. I was blond and perpetually tanned and pocked with bites from Texas mosquitoes.
I also happened to have an almost alarming fixation on Little House on the Prairie (first the TV show and, as soon as I could read, the books). I wore a sunbonnet passed down from my maternal great-grandmother, kept my hair in braids like Laura Ingalls, and occasionally called my parents Ma and Pa. When the bonnet wore down to a rag, my mother got out her sewing machine, which she often used to make our clothes, and whipped up a new one. At my request, she also helped me put my mattress on top of two box springs and leaned a stepladder against it, thereby mimicking the loft-bed setup of the Ingalls girls. In the yellow brick bungalow, where my mother built an elevated wooden play structure among the pecan trees in the backyard, I wore my bonnet along with an odd, scratchy calico skirt (a garment that could only have existed in the mid-1970s) and reenacted all manner of scenes from the books and TV episodes: the barn burning down, the dog getting lost, the whole family nearly dying from scarlet fever.
One day, my mother came to me and said that we would be moving away to New Jersey. I remember sobbing in her arms but also taking comfort in her promise that there would be snow in the new place. Since there was snow in the Little House on the Prairie books, I figured we were moving closer to the frontier. When she told me there’d be a real wood-burning fireplace in the new house, I imagined us using it for cooking corn bread.
Ridgewood, New Jersey, was no frontier, just a leafy village of perfectly clipped lawns abutting perfectly maintained houses. Mothers there did not sew clothes, much less build backyard play structures. In fact, they appeared not to do much of anything except play tennis, a discovery that seemed to turn my mother, who’d spent her Austin days attending Equal Rights Amendment rallies in peasant skirts, into an unhappy person almost overnight. Ironically, it was she who’d spearheaded the plan to move to Ridgewood. When my father, who’d been teaching music at the University of Texas, decided he wanted to live the life not of an academic but, rather, of a freelance composer (for commercial jingles, then hopefully for film and television) in New York, my mother had repeated the thing she’d apparently said shortly before they wed: “This marriage is about your career.” She then sought relocation advice from our neighbors/surrogate grandparents, who, as it happened, had lived much of their lives in Ridgewood, New ?Jersey.
“It’s a little pricier,” they’d said. “But it’s the best.”
“I like it here,” I said.
“Of course you do,” my mother told me. “But if we stayed here, we wouldn’t get to live in a new house!”
From the Hardcover edition.
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Life Would be Perfect If I Lived in That House, Meghan Daum’s laugh-out-loud memoir.
1. Meghan Daum details her lifelong obsession with real estate and her quest for a place to call home. What does “home” mean to you? How has that meaning evolved over the years? Do you agree with Daum’s assertion that “a house is not the same as a home . . . You do not shop for a ‘home’ any more than you’d shop for a life” (pages 12–13)?
2. Daum writes, “I wanted to live on another block, in another part of town, in New York, in Paris, on the moon” (page 224). Why does Daum constantly desire to move around? How does Daum’s concept of a dream home change as she moves from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska, and on to Los Angeles?
3. After taking the big real-estate plunge, Meghan Daum met, dated, and eventually married her now husband. Do you think there’s any sort of connection or similarity between finding a house and finding love?
4. What is it about real estate that draws such a following? Why are so many Americans so obsessed with the size, location, and style of their home? Do you think there’s a deeper meaning to this fixation?
5. Meghan Daum writes about the trappings of class and her mother’s transformation from a childhood in a nondescript house with no art on the walls and no books on the shelves to a Tudor-style, House & Garden–worthy duplex with Sondheim music streaming through the Bose stereo. How does class manifest itself in Daum’s real estate aspirations?
6. What draws you in to Daum’s search for a house? Do any of the details about her search resonate with your own experiences?
7. Daum dreams of New York city penthouses, sun-drenched “classic sixes,” and cavernous brownstones. How are dream homes defined in your community? What is your dream home?
8. How does this memoir change the way you think about house-hunting?
9. How do you think Meghan Daum was changed by the experience of writing about her search for a home?
10. Do you think the surge in decorating shows (like those on HGTV), magazines, and blogs is a sign of a larger cultural movement? Do you think the real estate market crash will have any impact on the drive to own bigger, grander homes?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)