Published by Pantheon
Publication date: June 9th 2015
In The Household Spirit, on a rural road in upstate New York, there sit two identical houses inhabited by two people who are anything but identical. Howie Jeffries is fifty-years old and has lived alone in his house since he and his wife divorced twenty years ago. He is a man with a huge heart wrapped in a persona of extreme shyness and an exterior that is so dour when he does smile it makes small children cry. He is not an angry man, just one who finds the outside world perplexing.
He was not, he knew, an unhappy man…You treat folks like you expect to be treated back. Howie had never found a good or bad reason to believe in God and believed only that things were getting too noisy and that most people were insane.
Emily Phane is a young woman mysterious in her dysfunction. Yes, she was raised by her grandfather with little contact with children her own age but it is a loving relationship. She has no friends or social life, no one but her grandfather so she is misaligned with the rest of the world and takes refuge in plants. It is only when she goes to college in Boston that she starts to create a life of her own but this is cut short when her grandfather becomes ill and she returns home.
Just as you used to be able to play vinyl records at a slower speed so The Household Spirit moves in a dreamy underwater way as author Tod Wodicka navigates the odd and bizarre lives of Emily and Howie. Howie, trapped in pathological shyness and Emily, in a world of night terrors that leaves her unwilling to fall asleep. They exist in these separate worlds for decades despite being next-door neighbors until Emily’s grandfather dies and she tips over the line from eccentric to disturbed, entombing herself in their house by digging up plants from the garden and bringing them inside. When this craziness leaves her temporarily without a house she moves in with Howie where they exist in a world of their own making, like soldiers in the same war. No romance, little physical contact of any kind, just comrades battling demons.
Wodicka amplifies the eccentricities of these characters with a style that is a gentle stream of consciousness. Sentences pour out as they might be found lying inside either Emily or Howie’s head as opposed to standing and screaming. Not for Wodicka are the staccato jabs and riffs found in other stream of consciousness works. Instead, sentences shift, ebb and flow, evoking the confusion and sadness within, not anger or frustration. This makes for beautiful gentle reading but as Howie and Emily begin to sink under the morass of their neuroses, insecurities, and fears so does The Household Spirit. The two feed off each other and at a certain point it feels as if they will drown, each clutching the other’s neck but instead, with his quietly expressive prose Wodicka rescues them and the novel regains its buoyancy. For readers who need a fast pace The Household Spirit may not work so well but for those who are ready to slow down and slip into the joy of quirky characters who can’t get out of their own way to happiness there is much to recognize and to love about this tender novel.