The Books of My Numberless Dreams

House Rules by Heather Lewis

Posted on: February 1, 2007

Lee is caught smoking pot at her boarding school and is expelled. She tells her parents she’s going to Florida then asks a friend for money to buy the plane ticket. There she can stay with Silas and ride his and Mrs. Cheslers’ horses. Besides the relative security he provides (an action his wife barely tolerates) she’ll get to see Sarah, another rider who works with Carl and his set. She has a huge crush on her but is unsure if Sarah reciprocates the feeling to any degree. There’s also K.C., her habitual companion at riding events because she is a fellow outsider. Lee isn’t wealthy and K.C.’s wealth isn’t old enough. On the flight, first class, she looks old enough to receive alcohol, aided in her desire for light inebriation by a far older male seat mate who assumes she’s in university. She passively aids in his desires by sitting quietly as he clumsily fondles her while pulling her hand inside his pants.

Lee is a frustrating, confusing. At fifteen she startles you with her keen observation and oft accurate character assessments, able to assume the right attitude to get what she wants. In other situations she is the reckless teenager, needlessly leaving comparatively safe abodes for the more attractive, for someone who will give her the kind of love she wants; even when at the edges of these decisions she believes it will only be a transient improvement. But this is not a manageable “bad teen” story. Her safe abode is not secure, it is temporary in the most complete sense of the word. Silas is accommodating because he knows what happens when she’s at home but this accommodation is the extent of his initiative. One thinks that Lee would not be grateful if he took any steps against her father, nor his wife who would immediately conclude that Lee had lured Silas into the mess. This weakness, this mildness pales in comparison to Sarah’s verve, to Linda’s callous dominance, to Carl’s outrageous hubris to Lee herself. Despite her passivity, her instinct to endure and retrench rather than to fight, internally she is a hive of mental and emotional activity. (If she weren’t a reader would be bored with her story after the shock of her situation faded.)

Her other sources of stimulation are drugs and alcohol. In many ways being a rider is the worst thing for her. The lack of supervision, the under-age drinking, the drug use by riders, both for themselves and their horses, creates a destructive primrose path. As young as she is, engaging with older and more experienced individuals, it is too much to expect that when she leaves the Cheslers’ circle to ride for Carl she will become little more than another horse in his stable to be drugged, stressed and ridden until she is useless. If she stays with them long enough.

I read most of House Rules with a tense, uneasy stomach. There are no glamorous parties with participants in drug-induced bliss or writhing in sexual pleasure. As the novel progresses Lee’s uses drugs as a sedative, in order to survive in the emotional maelstrom of living with Sarah, Linda and Carl. Her only pleasure, outside of riding, is sexual but even those encounters often play out like calculated moves of emotional give or take, each partner constantly wary; triumph comes when one manages to make the other reveal their vulnerability. It seems violent and when actual physical pain joins the mix you are hardly surprised.

I thought of Lolita while reading it, or rather the reactions to Lolita I’ve heard. One acquaintance did not enjoy the novel because she did not like or feel any sympathy for any of the characters. *Lolita was too facilitative, she claimed, she and Humbert bore an equal part of the blame. Humbert’s questionable reliability as a narrator, Charlotte’s dubious parenting and the child’s young age and especially vulnerable circumstances could not sway her position. I think this partly springs from our conditioning by triumphant memoirs, 20/20 exposés and tv movies-of-the-week even if we don’t regularly consume them. We’re constantly fed the story of survival, the “right” kind, where the victim always finds shining light out of the abyss, or reaches out to the good Samaritan who always acts in a socially approved manner. Even if this doesn’t happen we must be shown that the victim did everything it could to escape his or her situation having attained that clear idea of what’s good and bad by age seven; and if not then they must have liked what they were doing and are therefore bad or, at least, not as worthy a candidate for our sympathy. Any deviation from our idea of reality is dismissed.

Heather Lewis’ portrayal of Lee is sympathetic because she uses no overt tricks or contrived scenes. Lee’s flat tone and unapologetic narration reflects Lewis’ plain style. The power of the story lies in her characterisations, her evocative descriptions and the absence of sentimentality or gratuitous sensationalism. The horse training scene is as necessary as the sex in the stables and, as you turn the final page of the book, you’ll wonder if that jittery feeling in your stomach will ever go away.

I’ll end my jumble of thoughts with a quote from John Dewey’s The Art of Experience which I met while reading House Rules. It’s taken from the chapter on “The Act of Expression”. He starts out by explaining we find some art offensive and continues:

In reading a novel, even one written by an expert craftsman, one may get a feeling early in the story that hero or heroine is doomed, doomed not by anything inherent in situations and character but by the intent of the author who makes the character a puppet to set forth his own cherished idea. The painful feeling that results is resented not because it is painful but because it is foisted upon us by something that we feel comes from outside the movement of the subject matter. A work may be much more tragic and yet leave us with an emotion of fulfillment instead of irritation. We are reconciled to the conclusion because we feel it is inherent in the movement of the subject matter portrayed. The incident is tragic but the world in which such fateful things happen is not an arbitrary and imposed world. The emotion of the author and that aroused in us are occasioned by scenes in that world and they blend with subject matter.

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