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Classic review: The Hills At Home

The relatives come for the weekend, but they never leave in this relentlessly witty family novel.

By Ron Charles / June 21, 2009

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Feb. 13, 2003.]
Finally, the Books section has a scoop: Jane Austen is alive. What's more shocking, the grandmother of social satire has moved in with Jonathan Franzen, and the two of them have produced a love child called The Hills at Home.

How else to explain this allegedly debut novel from an unknown New Hampshire writer? Nancy Clark -

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if she really exists
- has just published what is surely the wittiest family portrait in years.

There is an immense audience waiting for a book like this. It includes all those people made to feel prudish by their reluctance to endure the vulgarities of Hollywood, the inanity of sitcoms, or the gritty assault of modern literature; people of real taste who are nonetheless gently steered toward sweet, sanitized romances, as though they're elderly customers arriving with Green Stamps to purchase products no longer made. In other words, all those people still clinging, despite the persistent lack of satisfaction, to their literary pride and prejudice.

For the members of the Hill family, no matter where they've wandered to, home is in the town of Towne, population 1,900, outside Boston. "Lily's family," the narrator explains, "had all come for visits the summer past and none of them had gone away again."

A retired schoolteacher living alone in a sprawling, run-down estate, Lily Hill has no desire to entertain her sundry relatives for more than a few hours, particularly relatives who are so hard on her windows. "They gazed through them excessively," she thinks with annoyance. But everyone in the family had been raised to regard "the old house in Towne" as their home, and Lily would no more push them out than she would discard a used Ziploc bag. Some things - in fact,

many things
- do not change. This is, after all, a family that feels specially reassured when their minister reads from Psalms: "The hills stand above Jerusalem."

And so they intrude deeper and deeper on Lily's hospitality and each other's nerves, all the while imagining that they've come to help her out with the care of a house she can no longer manage.

They resist one another in subtle ways. When Lily stops providing "individual bars of specific and premium bath soaps," they forge her handwriting on the grocery lists. Clark has a sharp eye for the little consumer preferences they use to act out deeper conflicts: "Aunt Lily always bought Ajax brand because, she said, she had liked him in the Iliad."

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