Each time Dana Reinhardt publishes another book, I am impressed again at her skill at telling authentic sounding teen stories in such a compact package. Her How to Build a House is no exception. I listened to her second novel, Harmless, earlier this year -- enjoying the book but not the audiobook. Here, the audiobook is much better (although not as absolutely great! as A Brief Chapter ....).
Los Angeleno Harper Evans is spending her summer in Tennesee with a Habitat for Humanity-type organization, building a house for a family who lost everything in a tornado. She's had a rough year: Her father and beloved stepmother are divorcing and Harper's lost her closest friend and stepsister, Tess. She's sleeping with a boy who isn't interested in an exclusive relationship, and at a party she discovers him with Tess. Once she reaches Tennesee, she begins to make new friends and begins a tentative romance with the son of the family whose home is being built. The story is really teenagers on their own, and Reinhardt's smart dialogue and situations sounded utterly real to me.
Yes, the metaphor is fairly obvious: Harper's trying to emotionally rebuild her home while physically building a house. But it's not drummed into you as a reader, Reinhardt lets you figure it out yourself. I also appreciated the structure of the book. Harper is in Tennessee for the entire story, but she regularly flashes back to the events of the year before. The story is told in nicely tantalizing tidbits.
The narrator is Caitlin Greer, who read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac for last year's list. I liked her better here. She's so skilled at teenage girl -- I thought she captured Harper's I'm so smart/I'm so insecure personality very well. She varied her narration beautifully, making sure that you got the humor and sass in these teens' conversations. The chapters of the book alternate with headings of "home" and "here," and every time I heard Greer say "home," I heard the word infused with longing and comfort.
Greer is not completely comfortable with male voices. She tends to speak them all in a lower register without much differentiation. She tries on a few accents with mixed success as well. The Tennessee boyfriend, Teddy, has a generic-sounding Southern intonation (and he didn't sound like the only Tennessean whose voice I'm familiar with, Al Gore [can I just say that I learned a new word today, demonym]), while her roommate there, Marisol, speaks in a Spanish-tinged voice. Unfortunately, Greer was not terribly consistent with these, they would fade in and out. She might have been better off not doing it at all.
I'm still hedging whether this performance is a deal-breaker because I liked the story so much. I really enjoyed listening to it; her inconsistencies did not bump me unpleasantly out of the mood Greer and Reinhardt so carefully created.