“It begins with a child . . .” So opens Jane Mendelsohn’s powerful, riveting new novel. A classic family tale colliding with the twenty-first century, Burning Down the House tells the story of two girls. Neva, from the mountains of Russia, was sold into the sex trade at the age of ten; Poppy is the adopted daughter of Steve, the patriarch of a successful New York real estate clan, the Zanes. She is his sister’s orphaned child. One of these young women will unwittingly help bring down this grand household with the inexorability of Greek tragedy, and the other will summon everything she’s learned and all her strength to try to save its members from themselves.
In cinematic, dazzlingly described scenes, we enter the lavish universe of the Zane family, from a wedding in an English manor house to the trans-global world of luxury hotels and restaurants—from New York to Rome, Istanbul to Laos. As we meet them all—Steve’s second wife, his children from his first marriage, the twins from the second, their friends and household staff—we enter with visceral immediacy an emotional world filled with a dynamic family’s loves, jealousies, and yearnings. In lush, exact prose, Mendelsohn transforms their private stories into a panoramic drama about a family’s struggles to face the challenges of internal rivalry, a tragic love, and a shifting empire. Set against the backdrop of financial crisis, globalization, and human trafficking, the novel finds inextricable connections between the personal and the political.
Dramatic, compassionate, and psychologically complex, Burning Down the House is both wrenching and unputdownable, an unforgettable portrayal of a single family caught up in the earthquake that is our contemporary world.
Mendelsohn's (I Was Amelia Earhart) latest begins with a prologue featuring the bitter horror of a Russian girl sold as a sex slave, who eventually becomes the stalwart nanny of the moneyed Zane family. But unfortunately, this glimpse of humanity and strife can't offset the flat main characters of the novel. Steven, the patriarch, remains one-dimensional, always taking meetings in hotel suites, sounding aggressive on the phone, and reading the Wall Street Journal; he's exactly like any businessman from any soap opera, whose power sets plot points into motion like dominoes but never comes to life as a particularly complex person. Poppy is his niece, whom he adopted when his sister, her mother, died. After Poppy begins an affair with a close family friend, Steven intervenes in unforeseen dark places of the family empire, for incredibly unlikely reasons. All the while, the Russian nanny is steely and calm, a caricature of resilience. As the Zanes' world crumbles, the details are well-wrought in Mendelsohn's articulate voice, but the whole package never departs from the melodramatic.
Great story line, wish it had been focused on more. Too much imagery for me, wanted more drama and details from the story that were not just trying to describe a scene.