Home Is Where the Heart Is

The Wall Street Journal , May 04, 2010


By Meghan Daum  Knopf, 245 pages, $24.95

For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.'"

The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.

Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.

Whether because of alienation or ambition, Ms. Daum's family, when she was growing up (first in Austin, Texas, and then in New Jersey), shared "a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves." That feeling manifested itself in a "perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination of a moving van." The result was a childhood filled with weekend trips to visit open houses, dinner-time conversations about relocation and, in Ms. Daum's teenage years, her mother's sudden move to her own home: "four walls whose color scheme required approval from no one. It wasn't another man she wanted but another life." (Ms. Daum's parents did not divorce.)

For Ms. Daum herself, the ideal of "domestic integrity"—a place that matches the person you most want to be—first coalesced around a prewar Manhattan apartment she visited on an errand with her father. It had "high ceilings and chipping paint on the window sashes and worn hardwood floors covered by a worn Persian rug. I wasn't privy to the bathroom, but I have no doubt it was a solid, epochal affair with a pedestal sink and original porcelain hexagonal tiles." She resolved immediately to live in such a place and chose her college, Vassar, because she believed that its proximity to New York would make that future apartment, and the life it represented, more likely. (Why, she now wonders, didn't she try NYU?)

Despite miserable college years, during which Ms. Daum moved 10 times in hopes of finding happiness, she graduated to a Manhattan apartment not too different from the one of her dreams. But, alas, such places are expensive and, for a fledgling writer, require roommates, who eventually become intolerable and who, in any event, do not fit into any grown adult's plans for having her own space.

So, following a vision born of her childhood love of "Little House on the Prairie," Ms. Daum decamped to Lincoln, Neb., a city she had found congenial while reporting a free-lance story on (believe it or not) female methamphetamine addicts. In Lincoln, she got her finances in order, wrote a successful novel, lived with a nice slacker boyfriend, drank beer on her rundown porch and enjoyed the "piquant, summery sound of a wooden screen door slamming."

But she was too restless, ambitious and, despite her love of prairie skies, just plain urban to stick around. She was also drinking too much beer. So Ms. Daum did the logical thing and headed west to Los Angeles. There she bounced around from rental to rental while entertaining fantasies of—and occasionally making offers on—farms in Nebraska. (She imagined that she could live there part-time and spend her winters in L.A.) She briefly found contentment in a rented house in Silver Lake, the trendy yet relatively affordable area of Los Angeles favored by recently arrived creative types. The house, she writes, "fused my real self and my fantasy version of myself into one glorious—if unmanicured—entity." Then she realized that she could never afford to buy it and moved again.

Like a traditional comedy, "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House" ends with a wedding and the promise of settled adulthood. Except that Ms. Daum and her husband barely fit into the tiny rundown place she eventually purchased in Silver Lake. She hopes to move to some place bigger, some place truly their own.

What else should we expect from a child enraptured by Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" stories, where nearly every book starts or ends with a move? Moving is the American way. A land of immigrants and pioneers is by definition, as the geographer Yi-fu Tuan observes, a "land of escapists." If your American dream involves a house, it's probably not the one you're living in right now.