Today we're delighted to welcome author Lauren Willig to Heroes and Heartbreakers. The heroine of Lauren's latest novel, That Summer, inherits a house in England, and it's through sorting through things in the house that she discovers a great and wonderful mystery, which she's determined to solve. She also—maybe—finds romance. Lauren is here to talk about the house books that inspired That Summer. Thanks, Lauren!
It’s a gray day. The rain is pattering down against your window. When suddenly, on your doorstep, arrives a letter. It’s come air mail, from a firm of solicitors in London, informing you that you’ve inherited a house from a great-aunt (or uncle, or step-parent, or cousin fifteen times removed) whom you never knew.
It might be a scam.
But then again… it might not.
I grew up on what I think of as “house books:" books in which the heroine inherits, house-sits, or otherwise inhabits a gloomy old house crammed with mysteries. These houses were frequently located in England (if the Gothics I devoured in my teens were to be believed, solicitors’ schedules were entirely taken up by sending letters to American legatees), but could also be in the American South, remote parts of Pennsylvania or New England, or atmospheric bits of the Continent, like Portugal or the South of France.
Some house books had elements of the paranormal; others were all about the atmospheric scenery and brooding heroes. They ran the gamut from ghost stories to tales of suspense to heart-warming small town antics. Having done a very scientific study of the books on my shelves, mostly involving lying prone on the sofa with a pile of books, and a hot cup of tea balanced on my stomach, I’ve decided that there are four major species of House Book, to wit:
1) The ghost story, in which the heroine must dig into the house’s history to lay the ghost to rest, usually with the help of a handsome historian/ librarian/ lawyer/ journalist/ next door neighbor/ fifteenth cousin twice removed.
2) The back-and-forth-in-time book (some call these “time jump”), in which the heroine (sans actual ghosts) plunges into a mystery from the past which helps her make sense of herself and her own life.
3) Romantic suspense, in which someone Doesn’t Want the Heroine There and goes about trying to push her off cliffs and drop large marble urns on her head.
4) The “bed and breakfast” house book, in which, unlike the other two, the only danger is to the heroine’s heart—and bank balance. These books involve the heroine scrambling to turn her inheritance into a viable business concern, carrying trays, fighting dry rot, and baking lots of muffins.
The first three fall broadly into the Gothic category. The fourth doesn’t. One thing they all have in common? The house is always a major player in the story. Without the house, there would be no story.
I coveted those houses. But, since no mysterious great-aunt/uncle/cousin fifteen times removed seemed likely to leave me a house in England, I had to write one of my own. In my latest book, That Summer, the heroine discovers a lost Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden behind the false back of a Victorian wardrobe—and, of course, a dishy antiques dealer to help her track down its history.
Not like there’s any wish fulfillment going on here.
What is the appeal of house books? As I was scribbling down the list of my favorites, I started pondering that question. It isn’t just the fascination of trawling through generations of treasures stuffed in an attic—although that’s definitely part of it! There’s something more going on in these books, something deeper, something that ties together the haunted houses with those heroines valiantly dodging falling urns and lugging trays of muffins (sometimes at the same time).
In all of these house books, the inheritance—or house-sit or what have you—provides the heroine with a chance to start over. The house and its associated task, whether it’s solving the ghost story, chasing down the bad guys, or feeding the paying customers, becomes a world apart, a special space in which the heroine can step away from her old life and figure out what she’s really made of. There’s something deeply appealing about that—particularly when the house comes with a handsome hero to help hunt down ghosts, solve mysteries, haul large furniture, and bake muffins.
And, then, of course, there are those attics….
Here’s a sampling of my favorite “house” books to enliven your summer reading:
What evil lurks within these walls?
Barbara Michaels: Wait for What Will Come; House of Many Shadows; Ammie, Come Home; The Crying Child….
(I could go on listing Barbara Michaels novels all day— Someone in the House, Witch, Vanish with the Rose—but then I wouldn’t have time to re-read Ammie, Come Home. Ask any Michaels fan and you’ll get a different list. She is to “house” books what John Hughes is to teen movies.)
Dorothy McArdle: The Uninvited.
Wendy Webb: The Tale of Halcyon Crane and The Fate of Mercy Alban (big old isolated family homes complete with ghosts, in a very Michaels-esque way)
Simone St. James: An Inquiry Into Love and Death (this one falls a little outside pattern, as the one historical among the contemporaries—but although it’s set in the 1920s, it’s very much a house book.)
If it’s chapter thirteen, we must be in another century….
Susanna Kearsley: Mariana (present day and 17th century—the heroine buys the house rather than inheriting it, but we can forgive that)
Kate Morton: The Forgotten Garden (heroine inherits a cottage in Cornwall, modern and Victorian)
Who wants the heroine gone?
Elsie Lee, Satan’s Coast (castle in Portugal) or The House of Golden Windows (Scottish ancestral home)
Mary Stewart, Thornyhold. (This one is hard to categorize… but it will make you want to inherit a small cottage in the English countryside, preferably with a well-stocked stillroom and a brooding author next door.)
So many muffins!
Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor series
Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s This Heart of Mine
Alexandra Raife’s Homecoming
And, for the best of both worlds, Barbara Michaels’s Here I Stay, in which the heroine turns her recently inherited haunted house into, yes, a B&B, providing us with ghosts, attic adventures, and lots of blueberry muffins.
Which are your favorite house books?
Learn more about or order a copy of That Summer by Lauren Willig, out now:
Lauren Willig is also the author of the New York Times bestselling Pink Carnation series and a RITA Award-winner for Best Regency Historical for The Mischief of the Mistletoe. A graduate of Yale University, she has a graduate degree in English history from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.