Hogwarts for Troubled Women

The House at the End of Hope Street: A Novel, Menna Van Praag, Penguin

Many days, I find myself wishing I could go to Hogwarts: someplace magical and removed from the day-to-day world where I can focus on developing the skills I need, while building friendships and receiving guidance from those wiser than me. That’s exactly the sort of place the titular house at the end of Hope Street is—but instead of providing a home to young wizards and witches, the house at the end of Hope Street offers temporary (99 days) accommodation to women facing particular challenges.

The house has hosted a remarkable series of women over the years: Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, Beatrix Potter, Virgina Woolf—even Agatha Christie for eleven days in 1926! We enter the house along with its newest resident, Alba, a brilliant young woman who has just flunked out of a graduate program at King’s College, Cambridge. Her fellow residents are Carmen, a singer who is escaping a violent marriage, and Greer, a failed actress who is trying to decide whether she should attempt to adopt a child on her own, now that she’s been dumped by her fiancé.

To extend the Hogwarts comparison, the house is like a multi-chambered room of requirement that offers exactly what one needs—though not necessarily what one wants. Books appear on bookcases, messages flutter down from the ceiling, and pictures of former residents offer advice. The house’s resident “head” is Peggy Abbott, who can also advise—and listen, and question—who has a particular fondness for chocolate cake, and who has spent the last two decades with a lover she’s kept at arm’s length.

This book is one of the most genuinely fun reads I’ve encountered in the last few years—and one that should appeal to a variety of readers. I found myself singing its praises to friends and coworkers while I was reading it, and several people will be getting a copy from me for a birthday or holiday gift.

One of the particular pleasures of this book was the range of characters it includes. I was particularly appreciative of its inclusion of lesbian, as well as heterosexual, relationships. This inclusiveness isn’t preachy; it’s just an acknowledgement of the real breadth of what we think of as “normal.”

I was also particularly comforted by the hopefulness (the house is on Hope Street) of this novel. The tone, the playfulness of its story line made it clear from the beginning that this book would end happily, though what “happy” would mean wasn’t revealed right away. I have a fondness for novels in which people in impossible situations agonize about the right path of action. Hope Street isn’t one of those novels. There are difficult situations, but the characters find workable solutions, and no agonizing on the part of the reader is required. Instead we can enjoy the process of self-discovery and redefinition along with the novel’s characters.

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