The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The BookBrowse Review

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Literary Fiction

  • Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (rated 4/5)

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  • Blog:
    6 Novels for Book Clubs That Reflect on Reproductive Rights
  • Wordplay:
    T O Thing W H T F I F I
  • Book Giveaway:
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Book Jacket

The Poet's House
by Jean Thompson
12 Jul 2022
320 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Critics:
Readers:
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A warm and witty story of a young woman who gets swept up in the rivalries and love affairs of a dramatic group of writers.

Carla is stuck. In her twenties and working for a landscaper, she's been told she's on the wrong path by everyone—from her mom, who wants her to work at the hospital, to her boyfriend, who is dropping not-so-subtle hints that she should be doing something that matters.

Then she is hired for a job at the home of Viridian, a lauded and lovely aging poet who introduces Carla to an eccentric circle of writers. At first she is perplexed by their predilection for reciting lines in conversation, the stories of their many liaisons, their endless wine-soaked nights. Soon, though, she becomes enamored with this entire world: with Viridian, whose reputation has been defined by her infamous affair with a male poet, Mathias; with Viridian's circle; and especially with the power of words, the "ache and hunger that can both be awakened and soothed by a poem," a hunger that Carla feels sharply. When a fight emerges over a vital cache of poems that Mathias wrote about Viridian, Carla gets drawn in. But how much will she sacrifice for a group that may or may not see her as one of their own?

A delightfully funny look at the art world—sometimes petty, sometimes transactional, sometimes transformative—The Poet's House is also a refreshingly candid story of finding one's way, with words as our lantern in the dark.

"A closely observed, droll, coming-of-age story ... An absolute keeper."—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

"Wry, canny, and delectable ... As a tribute to the soul-saving value of art, a cri de coeur for women striving to make authentic lives, and a pipeline of guidance from the elders to the emerging, The Poet's House offers many rooms, infinitely worth the tour." —The San Francisco Chronicle

"The brilliantly rendered mise-en-scène of quarrelsome, ego-ridden yet touchingly fragile poets and the literary entrepreneurs who circle around them makes a vivid backdrop for this classic coming-of-age tale. More thoughtful, elegantly written fiction in the classic realist tradition by the gifted Thompson." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Ever insightful, imaginative, compassionate, and funny, Thompson is a virtuoso of thorny interactions between wholly realized characters rife with contradictions. And she is so in her element, bringing this richly dimensional book-anchored mise-en-scène to life with lacerating wit and rueful tenderness while adeptly interleaving a poet's long, covert battle against sexism and regret with the verdant tale of a young woman taking root in an unexpectedly sustaining realm." —Booklist, starred review

"A coming-of-age novel, a novel of manners (Jane Austen, make some room on that big bench, dear), a page-turning narrative with laugh-out-loud scenes, and ultimately a hopeful, affirming book about how words can stir the mystery in us, help us find ourselves, and maybe even make us, however reluctantly, bigger versions of ourselves. The Poet's House is a book I'll be recommending to my friends who are readers and even to those who are not, but who will, to be sure, fall in love with Carla, with her discoveries, and with that master storyteller, Jean Thompson." —Julia Alvarez, author of Afterlife

"Beautifully rendered with wry wit, unusual charm, and poignant insights." —The Christian Science Monitor

"A literary charmer ... Amusing and true-to-life." —Marion Winik, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Jean Thompson is a national treasure. She's the kind of writer who can make you laugh and cry at the same time, a consummate prose stylist whose work is full of insight and wisdom and a deadly keen eye for the foibles and self-deceptions of her characters. The Poet's House is yet another indelible masterpiece in her oeuvre." —Dan Chaon, author of Sleepwalk

"Charming ... Part of the fun of The Poet's House is in its small details and memorable descriptions, but the biggest pleasures are Carla's evolution, the many well-drawn characters and subtle pokes at the competitiveness of the literary world." —BookPage

"Thompson's talents for immersive storytelling and sharp characters are on brilliant display, particularly in her portrayal of Carla's longing for something greater, and of Viridian's conflicted feelings about Mathias's work. The author's fans will savor this." —Publishers Weekly

"Jean Thompson makes hanging out with poets look like even more of a good time than one suspects, in real life, it might be. The Poet's House is terrific company: funny, poignant, and full of realistically quirky and original characters. A thoroughly enjoyable read." —Julie Schumacher, author of The Shakespeare Requirement

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Elizabeth D. (Apple Valley, MN)
The body is a house. Who lives within?
I enjoyed this book enormously and believe the characters will stay with me for a long time. I think anyone who's ever felt uncertain about their role in their own life or questioned what the future held for themselves, or how to think about what it means to determine their own vision of a successful and meaningful life, will enjoy this book. There are many different examples of ways people life their lives as the main character tries to figure out what it means for her to be happy and fulfilled, and whether and how her expectations align with those of her boyfriend and family members. I think many readers will be able to relate to Carla's experience of growing and changing with the result of it causing friction in her preexisting relationships. Her discovery of a new passion, even as its one she has to really work at to understand and appreciate, made me want to find such a transformative experience in my own life.

In addition to those who could relate to Carla's personal journey, I think the book will also appeal to those who are thoughtful about the value of the arts in our daily lives and who may or may not be familiar with the business side of the arts. I appreciated that the book (mostly) represented the act of writing poetry as taking work and that it could be done by different types of people, as opposed to a divine inspiration/genius stereotype, and likewise, that it could be appreciated/felt in the bones by different types of people.

Finally, I liked a number of the poems in the book, which I assume were written by the author.

Thank you to Algonquin Books and BookBrowse for the opportunity to read and review this delightful and thought provoking novel.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Melanie B. (Desoto, TX)
Well-crafted and Entertaining Novel
This book was unexpectedly funny, sad, artful and poetic. The warm-hearted telling of Carla's introduction to the business and art of poetry through Viridian's seasoned literary experience and wise philosophy of life was not only entertaining but also funny and a look at the less-than-perfect aspects of being vulnerable in uncertain times. This novel was much more than I expected and it was a very satisfying reading experience.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Maureen R. (Alamo, CA)
Poetry and Prose: A Perfect Union
The Poet's House by Jean Thompson is a charming coming of age story about Carla, who in her twenties, has not found a comfortable nor assured fit with her life. In the space of one summer, Carla is embraced by the famous poet, Viridian and her poet friends; and a new world of experience opens. Like poetry, this book has many layers and unfolds in poignant and beautiful ways. Like prose, there is a plot and even mysteries that keep you turning the page. The Poet's House is a perfect blend of these two genres. As a resident of the Bay Area, I found the setting in Marin and San Francisco spot on. I connected with and loved every character and found the writing excellent. I highly recommend this book. I was first grabbed by the note that lovers of Lily King would like this book, and I am not disappointed. I hope to read more of Jean Thompson.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Helia R. (Goodlettsville, TN)
Another gem from a favorite author
Reading a Jean Thompson novel is like catching up with a friend you've loved for decades because she is witty and kind and endlessly curious about the human condition. She's unbothered by fads and writerly pretenses, and after spending time with her books I always feel refreshed and more hopeful about the human race.

The Poet's House follows a twenty-something landscaper with a reading disability who discovers the power poems can hold and is consequently smitten with an elderly poet and her eccentric entourage. Her (very nice) boyfriend is less than thrilled by this development.

Readers who like reading about writing will gobble this novel up in no time (we get to attend a writers' conference! For free!)-- but so will anyone else who enjoys fine, honest fiction.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cynthia V. (New York, NY)
A Truly Lovely Work of Fiction
I am a Jean Thompson fan and was very much looking forward to reading her latest. It did not disappoint. The Poet's House is a very warm and welcoming work of fiction. The main character, Carla is lovably flawed. She has been trying to find herself, floating through life in a sort of contented state. This may sound like a cliched premise, but, in Thompson's hands, it is most definitely handled in a lovely, thoughtful way. I found myself reading quite slowly; I was savoring the subtleties of the writing, which truly flows and is unself-conscious. There is wonderful character development and a story that is immediately immersive. It is about the world of established and striving poetry writers, full of atmosphere and humor. However, I believe that I would be hooked regardless of that specific world. This book is a treat!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Barbara S. (Gig Harbor, WA)
An intriguing look into a poet's world
The Poet's House is a good title to read if you enjoyed Lovers and Writers or Groundskeeping. It brings the reader into the world of writers, in this case poets. I had some difficulty relating to the main character, but then realized that her nonreading habit was basically due to dyslexia and the author did a very good job explaining how the character related to the written word because of this condition. There were many intriguing characters and relationships in the book which would bring forth some interesting discussion, making this title a good pick for book clubs.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Arden A. (Longboat Key, FL)
Poetry for Non-Poets
I wasn't sure I would like this book. I am not a poet, nor do I necessarily enjoy poetry, or understand where it comes from within any poet. But I was wrong. I loved this book. Maybe it was because the main character was a young woman who is the antithesis of a poet, yet somehow found herself embedded in the world of writers and poets and managed to stumble through it and endear herself within that world, ending up with a clearer understanding of herself and who she really is. The characters were quirky, as is befitting the literary world, I think, and lovable in their own way. And the story moved along smoothly. This is the first work I have read by this author, who has written a number of novels and short stories. I will likely pick up another of her novels.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Betsey V. (Austin, TX)
For the love of poetry
Jean Thompson has a talent for creating characters who visibly mirror ourselves and the people who help shape our lives. This talent is well on display in POET'S HOUSE, a narrative of people grappling with early, middle, and late life decisions. Poets/writers have their art that they hold up as their core passion, but within their hearts, Thompson demonstrates that we all share similar desires to make our lives meaningful.

Twenty-one-year-old Carla is a landscape artist stuck in moving forward with a career path. A community college dropout, she is very bright, intelligent, but she's wired differently. Reading comprehension is a challenge, because she doesn't process words well (likely a form of dyslexia). But one day, while landscaping a famous poet's house, she hears the poet, Viridian, recite a poem out loud, and bam—Carla is captivated. A whole new world has opened up for her, and Viridian, the lovely, seventy-ish poet, befriends and wants to help her.

Carla's love life generally seems centered, but her vague sense of the future periodically interferes, even with steadfast Aaron, her boyfriend. In the meantime, Carla is compelled deeper into the world of poetry and poets. Viridian is a superstar in that esoteric world, and her poet friends flock around her to support, cling, or just be in her company.

Viridian had a past lover, Mathias, a poet who died many years ago. Apparently, he burned what was left of his poems, but everyone thinks that Viridian has secreted them somewhere in her house, but nobody has ever been able to turn them up, and Viridian is mum. Even though she struggles financially, and the recovery of Mathias' lost poems would earn her a windfall, she won't budge. Her stubbornness is as enigmatic as her own past. She's a tenacious feminist who insists on her own principles and resources. And Carla admitted to her poetry crush that began with the first of Viridian's poems that touched her.

"I wanted to keep living this way, among people who talked about writing, sometimes frivolously, sometimes seriously, often both in the same conversation."

POET'S HOUSE is compassionate, exploring the struggles of lives, family, health, habits, and individuality. Strip the surface of our skin and feel the keenness below. Peel away the words we speak and write and know the heart and humanity from where they came. "You write poems because you want to take hold of an aspect of experience and examine it, push it a little further, find out why it speaks to you. You want to speak back at it."

Read and enjoy this comely story!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lorraine D. (Lacey, WA)
Quality, Emotion, Humor - The Poet's House Exudes It All
What a delight it was to read this book! It has it all. Jean Thompson's characters, each distinct from one another, provide an understanding of poets, poetry, the lives of artists in general. One gets a front row seat and view of the life styles, emotions, competitiveness, and quirks of this unique group of individuals. This book will motivate some readers to pursue a greater exposure to, or understanding of, poetry in general. It is all presented in the story, enmeshed in a tale of complex relationships, and laugh out loud humor. This is a read that I have truly appreciated and will recommend to as many groups and people as possible. It prompted me to read more of Jean Thompson's novels and to "follow" her.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Leslie R. (Arlington, VA)
Hard to review
Usually I have no trouble expressing my opinion about a book, but this time I want to ask the other reviewers "What did you think?" I don't have a feel for whether other readers will like this book or not. What I know for sure: I was never bored; the writing was supremely readable; the narrator heroine was witty, intelligent, feisty, almost debilitatingly insecure, and totally believable.
As a dyslexic young adult (she never uses that word), she has avoided college and works as a landscaper. Both her mother and his boyfriend try to encourage her to reach higher, but it is her chance involvement with a group of poets that helps her see herself in a different light. Her interactions with these artistic poets and writers, and with the poetry itself, change her; and in some strange way, at the end of the book I felt changed, too.

more reviews...

Jean Thompson is the author of fourteen books of fiction, including the National Book Award finalist Who Do You Love, the NYT bestseller The Year We Left Home, and the NYT Notable Book Wide Blue Yonder. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, as well as dozens of other magazines, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize. She has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, among other accolades, and has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Reed College, Northwestern University, and many other colleges and universities.

Other books by this author at BookBrowse:

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