As The History of Us begins, Eloise Hempel is living her dream as a new professor at Harvard, when everything changes with one phone call. Her sister and her husband have died in a tragic accident and she must take charge of their children, then 11, 8 and 2. Eloise gives up her career at Harvard, returns home to her mother’s house in Cincinnati, and becomes an instant parent.
The story then moves forward in time. The children are grown, Eloise is teaching at a local university, and they are all still living in the huge old family home. But when the youngest, Claire, is set to leave home to start a career as a ballerina in New York, and Eloise wants to sell the house, suddenly the whole family structure seems about to fall apart, and all the hidden secrets and repressed emotions that this family holds begin to be revealed.
The characters in this novel are like real human beings, flawed and sometimes selfish, pigheaded and lost. At times the reader will find each of them frustrating, as they alternately fail to care enough about each other and others and then care too much, as humans usually do.
Eloise, and the grown children, Theo, Josh and Claire, are all seeking to get what they want, but first, they have to learn to deal with loss, accept themselves and each other, embrace change and learn what it really means to be family before they can even figure out what that is.
The book is compelling, sometimes infuriating, complicated, and ultimately rewarding, just as families many times are.
Stewart has a knack for writing characters you will care about. It is difficult to believe,however, that apparently neither Eloise nor any one of the three adult children have ever considered that they might share the enormous expenses of maintaining the house which the book details once Josh and Theo move back home. (Claire is only 19.)
They don’t pay rent or help with repairs or utility bills. Eloise pays thousands of dollars for things like gutter repair, and they don’t contribute. When all three children decide they want the house, they never think of how they would pay for it. Surely, at 28 and 26, Josh and Theo should have more of a grip on reality. For most real people reading the book, this may require some suspension of disbelief.
Nevertheless, The History of Us is an engrossing and satisfying look at family dynamics in which a great deal rings true and this reviewer highly recommends it.