The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag
Pub. Date: March 24, 2014 (orig. April, 2013)
Source: finished copy via publisher (thank you, Penguin!!)
Summary: When Alba Ashby, the youngest Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, suffers the Worst Event of Her Life, she finds herself at the door of 11 Hope Street. There, a beautiful older woman named Peggy invites Alba to stay on the house’s unusual conditions: she’ll have ninety-nine nights, and no more, to turn her life around. Once inside, Alba discovers that 11 Hope Street is no ordinary house. Past residents include Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie, who all stayed there at hopeless times in their lives and who still hang around—quite literally—in talking portraits on the walls. With their help Alba begins to piece her life back together and embarks on a journey that may save her life.
Genre: Adult, Magical Realism, BEAUTIFUL
Rating: x a million

The House at the End of Hope Street is that rare kind of story that initially comes across as wholly unassuming and it isn’t until you look up and see it’s going on 3am that you realize this book has completely enchanted you. There are few books I’ll read in a single sitting and even fewer that I’ll sacrifice sleep for, but with this book I happily ignored the rapidly-approaching dawn. For 280 gorgeous pages I lived and breathed this story. When I finally finished I wanted to hold the book close, somehow make it a part of me. I seriously considered starting over again, turning back to the very first page – and I have never reread a book immediately after finishing.

At 19, Alba Ashby is well on her way to a bright future. She was Cambridge University’s youngest student (15) and is now the youngest PhD student. Her world collapses in an Unspeakable Moment – throughout the novel the truth is hinted at, though never fully detailed until later on – and she sees herself with no option but to leave school. Not wanting to return to a home where her siblings hate her (Lord Ashby’s children prefer the latest and greatest, not understanding their youngest sister’s passion for books and history) and finds herself at the door of 11 Hope Street.

As if she fully expected to see Alba on her doorstep, an older woman introduces herself as Peggy and invites the girl in. She invites Alba to stay in the house for ninety-nine days while she gets her life back on track. Once inside, Alba notices the photographs lining the walls. Hundreds on photos of famous women, all of whom had taken up residence in the house at one point or another. Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale, and Sylvia Plath had found the house in their time of need and now it’s their turn to offer advice to Alba – literally. The house on Hope Street isn’t an ordinary home, it’s a living, breathing place ready to provide inspiration and assistance to any woman who finds herself at the door.

The characters in The House at the End of Hope Street are just as magical as the house itself. Along with Peggy and Alba, there are two other women who have taken up residence in the house. Greer, a starlet pushing forty, recently discovered her fiance entertaining a woman young enough to be her daughter and Carmen, a beautiful Portuguese woman who fell in love with a musician and is now holding onto a dark secret. The story’s narrative alternates between these four women and nothing – nothing – makes me happier than some multiple narratives! There’s Stella, a ghost only Alba can see, who has filled the role of friend and confidant that was missing from Alba’s life. There’s also Mog, a cat who has been in the house for decades – and let’s not forget the photographs! The entire time I was reading this book I kept imagining Harry Potter-esque photos. The women in the frames are fully capable of interaction and, whether Alba wants it or not, are quick to offer advice. At the very end of the book there are a few pages devoted to these women which give mini-bios. There are suffragists (Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst), writers (Daphne du Maurier, George Eliot), actresses (Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh), scientists (Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville) and so many, many other remarkable women and let it be noted that my interest is definitely piqued. Don’t be at all surprised if future reviews include a biography or two!

The House at the End of Hope Street is a book I could keep talking about for AGES. For such a tiny novel, there’s so much to be said about this story! It’s also one of those books I loved so much that I fear anything I say could never do it justice. There are novels that I enjoy enough to declare a top pick for the year. This one, however, has gone above and beyond. It’s achieved that special status: a favorite not just for the year, but overall. Some books I like enough to reread – at some point. This time I know I’ll be revisiting these characters.

Whether you’re a Young Adult reader who’s looking to dip your feet into the Adult genre or a reader who’s looking to get lost in a beautiful world, I cannot recommend this book enough. It had everything I didn’t know I had been looking for and Menna van Praag is an author I’ll now be keeping my eye on.

NOTABLE QUOTE
There are 280 pages of notable quotes – this book is beautiful.

As Peggy ushers her into the kitchen Alba feels a flash of fear. She ought to think twice before entering the homes of complete strangers. Hidden behind Peggy’s bright eyes might be the mind of a murderess; under the folds of her patchwork dressing gown could beat the heart of an evil witch who sees Alba as a modern-day Gretel. But when Alba enters the kitchen she’s enveloped in the scent of something magical: cinnamon, ginger, lavender and several spices she can’t possibly name, and her fears evaporate. She feels three years old again, transported to a wished-for childhood of baking biscuits with her mother on Sunday afternoons. If Peggy is bewitching her, the spell is complete.

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