March 2011

Kevin Frazier

fiction

Designs for a Happy Home by Matthew Reynolds

With Designs for a Happy Home, Matthew Reynolds has written the most impressive debut novel I’ve read in years. It reminds me of the best of Julian Barnes: it has the nimble literary and psychological elegance of Flaubert’s Parrot or Talking It Over. Like Barnes, Reynolds can be funny and light while easing his way into questions that are complicated and serious, and that become more significant as the novel goes on. In this case, the main questions revolve around what we should we expect from our families and friends, and what they should expect from us in return.    

A young Oxford lecturer on English literature, Reynolds often writes critical essays for the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. Designs for a Happy Home has been shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and nominated for the Desmond Elliot Prize for new fiction.

It’s an intricate book, with a much more sophisticated vision than its setup promises. What starts as an entertaining parody of modern memoir-speak ends as something rich and strange -- a novel that increases our knowledge of how we talk to the people around us, how they talk to us, and how many-sided and contradictory those conversations are.

We recognize the voice of the novel’s narrator, Alizia Tamé, as soon as we hear it. Alizia is an interior designer. From the start she tries to sell her writing to us in an all-too-familiar tone of pushy optimism:

It is a How-To Book; and also it is my Life Story. Why both together? Because the roots of my Designs go deep into my life and their branches (i.e., their effects) stretch out in all directions. You will see my ideas spring up, and watch me bringing them across the threshold of reality. Testimonials from friends and colleagues will show you the influence that I and my Designs have had on them. Finally, I am going to reveal to you my own personal trade secrets -- my Magic Mottoes -- to help you activate the Design potential in your own lives. A beautiful Interior can make you calmer, more generous -- and, in a really startling way, more you.

Reynolds lets us see through Alizia immediately. Her strenuous cheerfulness is often inseparable from her need to control the people around her. She views her designs as a force for bending her husband, a pottery sculptor, to her plans for their relationship. She also uses her obsession with furniture arrangement to dismiss two of her closest friends as mere listeners, with her at the center of their attention: “They do speak quite a lot of words. But, at a deeper level, what those words do is keep the focus of the conversation on me.”

We wait for Alizia to realize how clueless she is, and sure enough she discovers that her design ideas and Magic Mottoes have blinded her to what’s really going on with her employer, her husband, her friends, and the people who work for her. Most novelists would be satisfied with this: a crisp lampoon of a narcissist who gets her comeuppance. After all, I think many of us feel that the ongoing international spread of Alizia’s style of uplifting self-help terminology is a fraud on the complexity of human existence. Mocking Alizia’s absurdity, Reynolds has the ear and the timing to make the novel a neat satirical triumph.

Yet he goes quite a bit further than this. Designs for a Happy Home balances Alizia’s voice against all the other characters’ voices, which come to us largely through the testimonials that Alizia includes. And while these characters expose Alizia’s shortcomings, they ultimately expose their own shortcomings as well, and reveal that their view of her is often blinkered and cruel. We find that some of our worst suspicions about her have been exaggerated, and that we need to take a fresh look at her strengths as well as her weaknesses. By the end of the book, we’ve come to understand that many of Alizia’s observations which initially seemed ludicrous actually hold their fair portion of truth.

Reynolds hasn’t given us yet another novel about an unreliable narrator. Rather, he has given us a novel about competing rationalizations, where the line between each character’s valid observations and self-serving insensitivity is constantly shifting. This is the work of a writer who has thought hard about the ways that different forms of language influence us, and who possesses the skill to turn that knowledge into vital, compelling fiction.  

Designs for a Happy Home by Matthew Reynolds
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1408801051
256 Pages