on 17 May 2001
This is a wonderful novel which is just as relevant today as when it was first published in 1924. Lester and Evangeline Knapp live in small-town America. Lester is a miserable clerk in a department store, and Eva is equally miserable at home. The first chapters of the novel are almost unbearable as we see Eva mercilessly cleaning her house to within an inch of it's life, creating a "perfect" home with no warmth at it's centre. Her children are nervous (except her youngest, Stephen, who is rebellious),her husband is dyspeptic, and her neighbours admire her efficiency while Eva bursts into hysterical tears at the slightest upset. When an accident disables Lester, their roles are reversed. He stays home to keep house and look after the children, and Eva goes to work as a saleswoman in the store which once employed her husband. All the qualities which made Eva such a disastrous housekeeper make her a wonderful saleswoman. The children find their health and happiness improves when their house becomes a home instead of a torture chamber. Lester discovers his vocation in nurturing his family, the relationship which develops between him and the children is beautifully drawn. But, will small-town America allow this bliss to continue? Can the Knapps really be happy in such an unnatural situation? Canfield Fisher's novel is involving on every level. I loved Eva's blossoming in her new career, her enthusiasm was a joy. The author's theme is not just the rights of adults to follow their inclinations and talents, but the rights of children to be brought up in a nurturing environment. Who raises them isn't really the issue.
on 28 January 2007
What an exciting find. I read The Homemaker cover to cover in one sitting, into the early hours of the morning. It's a remarkable book.
Lester and Eva Knapp are profoundly unhappy. He hates his job. She is a prisoner at home. Their children are paying the price, made sick by their parents suffocating misery.
When Lester is crippled by a terrible accident the Knapps' lives seem to hit rock bottom, but in the family's dark time they begin to see.
The Homemaker tells an uplifting story of Eva's discovery of the happiness brought by personal fulfilment and the family's defiance of the restrictive norms of small town America in the new shallow consumerism of the 1920s.
Most moving is Lester's journey from dispirited clerk to talented, loving parent. And the way in which his perceptive understanding of the real needs of his children cures them of their soul-sickness.
For in his accidental role reversal, Lester is allowed to become The Homemaker.
This is a beautifully written book, with characters you care deeply about and who will stay with you long after you have turned the final page.
It is also a profound comment on a society that cannot accept deviations from the traditional roles of breadwinner and homemaker that speaks as forcefully today as it did 80 years ago.
The Homemaker is a domestic Great Gatsby, asking the same deep questions about where America was heading in the early years of the 20th century. It is an unfortunate quirk of literary fate that one should be a revered set text and the other almost unknown.
on 23 October 2004
Persephone Books consistently chooses some of the most amazing fiction to re-print, and _The Home-Maker_ is a stunning example of a novel that's been undeservedly neglected. Dorothy Canfield's book raises some very important questions about gender roles in society, questions which are still completely relevant today. Not only is the book very assertive in its statements about society but it's also a very good yarn. The characters in this book have continued to haunt me after finishing the book and I've re-read the book once already. It's a brilliant, brilliant book and deserves a wider audience.
on 30 March 2011
This novel was a Christmas present from my wife. First published in the 1920s, it describes a couple in which the wife is sharp, business-minded, and going completely potty running a household and looking after three sickly children. The husband is genial, slightly dreamy, and completely unsuccessful as a businessman. The solution to a modern eye might seem obvious, but it takes at least 100 pages and a fall from the roof leaving the man in a wheelchair to effect the complete swap of roles. And, naturally, everything changes; the trivial ailments recede, the mother's waspish temper softens, and everyone begins to emerge from their separate prisons and engage with each other.
Some of the humour is dated; the reader is expected to find the very idea of a man darning socks or scrambling eggs hilarious. But as much of the humour is not, and the delight of the book is in its minute domestic detail. There is a wonderful scene, for instance, in which the father and his young daughter do not know how to break an egg - but by dint of patience, discussion, and good-humoured experimentation, they finally work it out together. It last about 3 pages. You may have guessed from this that gender roles do not swap altogether; it is the daughter who is expected (by everyone) to help her father in the kitchen. Nor indeed are gender roles even altered much; when they swap, they are swapped intact. Some consideration is given to the fact that the man is wheelchair-bound, but rather more to the wife who must sigh and learn to accept a certain degree of slovenliness around the house. Quite familiar, really, and I don't even have a wheelchair to use as excuse...
Towards the end of the book, as the man begins to regain the use of his legs, we realise with a dull ache that every single character in the book (the kids excepted) assume unquestioningly that this means he will have to go back to work, and his wife leave her job and return to scrubbing floors. I won't give away the ending, but I'm happy to say that it does avoid being too polemical an attack on a pre-Feminist world. The author has points to make, but she does them the right way, by getting you under the skin of the characters rather than by preaching.
on 13 October 2005
Another fantastic Persephone book (Susan Glaspell's Fidelity first hooked me in) by another American author. Dorothy Canfield Fisher tells an initially horrifying yet gripping tale of a maniacally high energy, perfectionist mother who unwittingly brings unhappiness and physical illness on her husband and two children because of her own misery as a housewife. While the husband and wife's complete ignorance of the effects their inner desires and feelings have on others is not always entirely plausible, their emotions nevertheless stand out as most genuine and relevant to today's society. Canfield Fisher succeeds at depicting a very real spousal situation and as an author in the early to mid twentieth century, fashions a role reversal that, even today, might sadly seem odd and cause embarrassment and/or shame to the couple. Suitable for both men and women, I highly recommend this very quick read.
on 22 July 2011
'She was scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which led from the stove towards the door to the dining-room. That was where Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet, if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! ...The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None...'
Hard to believe that this was first published in 1924. Other reviewers have summarised the story of an embittered, frustrated housewife who becomes a successful career woman when forced to change roles with her disabled husband, who was a square peg in the round hole of his former workplace. But it's also a not-too-preachy diatribe against American materialism.
Engrossing and easy to read, I finished this in a evening, though I got a tiny bit bored towards the end with the father's poetic musings (and sympathised far more with the mother's release from poverty and scrubbing floors). I'm sure any parent with a five-year-old who's still having temper tantrums will be consoled to see that they're clearly not a modern invention!
Don't want to give away the ending. But although Dorothy Canfield Fisher was years ahead of her time, she is aware that American small town society will never be accepting of anyone who thwarts the system. Maybe she was right. After all, how many house husbands do you know today? And how well-accepted are they by other men?
on 15 August 2007
The Home-Maker is an engaging, poignant and startlingly current novel. It charts the mutual journeys of Evangeline and Lester Knapp as they move (in opposite directions!) from disenchantment to fulfilment. In both cases this transition involves renouncing the roles imposed on them by a society founded upon fixed notions of male/female responsibility. (So, Evangeline leaves the home and Lester the office).
The portrayal of dissatisfaction, be it Lester's apathetic despair or Evangeline's channelled neuroses, is psychologically astute and is symptomatic of the psychological perspicacity of the novel as a whole. Particularly striking is the insight into the relationship between mind and body. For Lester, Evangeline and their children unhappiness and sickliness go hand in hand.
For meditation on questions of gender, responsibility and family this novel is a must read. Highly recommended.
on 3 May 2011
I bought this book because of the reviews on Amazon and was not disappointed. This is one of the best books I have ever read and would definitely recommend it.
This is the story of Lester and Eva Knapp, married with 3 children, Helen, Henry and Stephen who are trying to live a life by the correct domestic conformity and live in a perfect world. However everything is not perfect in this domestic setting and Dorothy Canfield Fisher constructs a story where everything that is held to be the correct way is challenged.
Eva is the perfect housewife (home -maker) she works from the moment she gets up to the moment she closes her eyes ensuring that everything is clean beyond perfection. That her children are clean, polite, controlled and her husband has a meal every day when he comes home from work after having a breakfast to send him on his way in the morning. To outsiders Eva is conforming, to Eva she is fighting a battle with all things domestic and motherly and this strive for perfection is affecting her children and her husband. To me it came across as Eva was sanitising life for everyone including herself.
Lester is a small cog in a machine and an insignificant one at that. In a job which he despises, this brings in little money and where he is not liked. His days are spent dreaming of the literature he loves and misses from giving up university to marry young. His nights are dreary and he wishes in simple terms that he was not on this earth.
Then everything an accident changes and roles are reversed. Eva now becomes a cog in a machine working at the local Emporium where Lester had previously been made redundant from. Eva suddenly finds her niche and that small cog becomes a much larger one and suddenly she feels she has a purpose and a belonging and achieving something. Lester on the other hand has to face up to his lengthy disability, with that becomes an epiphany moment when he becomes the home-maker. All of sudden, everything is not so clean, the children are allowed to run free uncontrolled and share in the love that their father obviously has the capacity to give. All of a sudden the stage where Eva worked before becomes a home.
They all learn together to adjust to their new circumstances and also those around her from her days when she was an important part of the Ladies Guild have to learn to adjust. They have to see Lester darning socks, making cookies and nurturing the children.
I actually did not like the characters of Eva and Lester, slightly oxymoronic perhaps considering I feel the book is excellent. Eva frustrated me in her seek of perfection and her condescending attitude towards her husband. And although I admit she did change in character slightly in the book, I still felt she had no real warmth for being a mother let along being a home-maker.
Lester is rather insipid. Before and after the accident. His only strength was he recognised something in developing his children and they blossomed into characters and personalities without being forced down a particular route. Canfield Fisher skill of creating these characters is excellent and that is why I enjoyed the book. It made you think about how life can be conducted and that perhaps fitting into stereotypes is not the path to happiness whether you are young or old. It is about finding your own path and creating your own individual stereotype.
This book resonates on many levels for me. Interestingly enough it has no time line, or place in an age gone past. Your only clue, other than the fact that it is set in America is perhaps the language that characters use. Its publication of 1924 would probably be right in its setting. However, this book is as relevant some 87 years later. You could say much has changed and that women are frequently seen in the workplace as well as still being seen as an important role model at home. There are an increasing number of male home-makers (house-husbands)but they are still the minority and considered something of a novelty. We all have ideals on who should fit into what role and how they should behave in it. Would reading this book in another 87 years time show that it is still as relevant then as it is today and all years previous since its publication?