Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I read another short book! And you might think that I’m about to just complain about it, because I haven’t loved all the short books I’ve read lately because they just feel like they’re missing stuff.
…and okay, it did feel at times like this book could’ve gone deeper (Inception noises) if it took a little more time with some characters’ storylines, but I actually liked it quite a bit?
But let’s just get into it!
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
So this is a young adult…drama? It takes place in Alaska in the 1970s.
I’m not sure I’d call it historical, because it’s not really that much about history, and I wouldn’t call it a romance, because it has minor romantic aspects. It’s about four perspective characters who are each at a crossroads in their young lives, and their stories are all connected somehow. I’d say in terms of themes, it’s a lot about family, but not just blood-related family—it’s very much about found families, too.
The reason why this was short but it still worked pretty well for me is that each perspective character (Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank) has one central conflict to deal with and they each work things out in their own ways. The reason why I would’ve still preferred a bit more time with the book is that in some instances, I feel like what brought them to those conflicts would’ve been interesting to establish more thoroughly.
For example, Alyce is torn between spending the summer on the fishing boat with her father and making it to a dance audition, but we really don’t know much about her relationship with her father, why she can’t talk to him about this, and what going away for dance school means to her. Without getting a strong sense of that conflict, her decisions aren’t as meaningful. And her storyline definitely comes off as the weakest, because the stakes for other characters are much more explicit: Hank, for example, is running away from home with his brothers with nothing but the extra jackets on their backs.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t beautiful moments in Alyce’s story and that I don’t enjoy it, but I could have been a lot more emotionally invested in how it turns out for her with a little more backstory.
I also wish there were more time in this story for the non-perspective characters, who were often interesting and felt like they should be important to me, but there were so many in such a short story that I came to appreciate the dramatis personae-type section at the beginning of the book.
I was a sucker for this because of the use of setting, though. The focus on smells and food and clothing made this world feel so real and inhabited. The movement through seasons in the book helps to establish that effect, too.
This book is really strong in terms of its setting and the images and symbols in it, as well as how much they made me sympathize with the characters. The simple moments of wearing a ribbon or cleaning a fish or eating a kind of homemade ice cream made me connect with what they were feeling and the connections they felt to places (other people’s houses, often) and one another. It’s a folksy saying that smell connects us the most to memory, so maybe that has something to do with how strongly that type of imagery works in this story.
The characters have a lot of small but meaningful moments together, but they’re refreshingly not about hyper-clever dialogue as in some YAs. (I like those books a lot of the time, but I feel like they’ve become A Type.) They’re a lot more about quiet understanding and struggling to find the right words and to be emotionally vulnerable, and I think that works for the characters.
Honestly, I’m a sucker for found family stuff, uncommon imagery (smells are so underrated!), setting that’s actually meaningful in the story, rare settings, and I appreciate the representations of Native peoples in this story. (It calls out stereotypes about them without being super preachy about it, but also just has varying representations and a lot of positive ones. I’m speaking as a white person, though, so grain of salt.)
Anyway, that’s my way of saying I’m probably a bit biased about this book because it checks my boxes, and it’s really refreshing to read something realistic that’s reasonably low on romance. Basically, if you like real-world setting books with only tidbits of romance and lots of family and friendship stuff and pretty writing, you will really like this, too. (If you also read a lot of YA, this is a pretty different offering that could be a breath of fresh air in your world.)
If 1970s Alaska and family drama doesn’t sound interesting to you and you’re not into symbolism, give this a hard pass.
But for me? Firm yes.