A house among the trees

Julia Glass, 1956-

Large print - 2017

"When the revered children's book author Mort Lear dies accidentally at his Connecticut home, he leaves his property and all its contents to his trusted assistant, Tomasina Daulair, who is moved by his generosity but dismayed by the complicated and defiant directives in his will"--

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Domestic fiction
Thorndike, Maine : Center Point Large Print 2017.
Main Author
Julia Glass, 1956- (author)
Center Point Large Print edition
Item Description
Originally published: New York : Pantheon Books, 2016.
Physical Description
575 pages (large print) ; 23 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

"A HOUSE AMONG THE TREES," the new novel from the National Book Award winner Julia Glass, reads as if it were written with a future television mini-series in mind. Like an author in an annoying biographical note, it divides its time between New York City, Hollywood and the quaintly rural village of Orne, Conn. (Think "Martha Stewart Living" in a snow globe.) It is basically the story of half a dozen middle-aged members of the coastal elite trying to find love, recover from injuries inflicted by awful mothers and reconcile artistic integrity with the challenges of wealth management. So intensely televisual is this novel that in reviewing it, I've been unable to resist the temptation to cast it. At the center of the narrative is Mort Lear, a renowned children's book author and illustrator who bears more than a passing resemblance to Maurice Sendak (Kevin Spacey). As the first chapter opens, Mort has just died in a freak accident, falling from the roof of the house in Orne that he shares with Tomasina Daulair, known as Tommy (Julianne Moore), his beleaguered amanuensis, housekeeper, bookkeeper, lecture agent and intimate companion (except in the bedroom). It is Tommy who finds Mort's twisted body - a shock that's only compounded when she learns that, without alerting her, Mort has changed his will, naming her as his sole beneficiary and literary executor and instructing her to "widely disperse" his estate in order to raise funds for the establishment of a home for troubled boys in his native Tucson. This about-face - previously Mort had indicated that he would leave his literary and artistic remains to a museum in Long Island City that's already lining up donors for a new building - blindsides not just Tommy but the museum's curator, Merry Galarza (Amy Poehler), who's having troubles enough as it is, her husband having recently lefther for a younger woman after years spent trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. Mort's death also threatens "The Inner Lear," a biopic that's about to go into production with Nicholas Greene, an Oscarwinning British actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch (Benedict Cumberbatch), in the title role. As conceived by its director, Andrew Zelinsky (Jason Alexander), the film will combine live action and animation to dramatize the sexual abuse Mort suffered as a child at the hands of the gardener at the Tucson hotel where his mother worked as a maid - an episode Mort had startled his friends by revealing in a New York Times interview with Calum Bonaventura (Cheyenne Jackson). The only trouble is, that encounter with the gardener may not have happened in quite the way Mort described it, if it happened at all - something Mort has admitted only to Nick in a series of emails that, at Mort's request, Nick has deleted. Which is why Nick, a stickler for method acting, has decided to go up to Orne to visit Tommy on the same weekend that Merry, the curator, in her desperation to persuade Tommy to leave Mort's estate to the museum, is planning to ambush her at Mort's house with the assistance of Tommy's brother, Danilo Daulair (Jeremy Piven), who has troubles - and secrets - of his own. Like the plot of any mini-series worth its salt, this complicated tale - and believe me, there's plenty I've leftout - relies heavily on the present tense and shifting points of view. Each chapter incorporates extensive dialogue (the script) as well as detailed descriptions of rooms and places (set design), bodies and clothes (costume design), qualities of light and season (location scouting). There's chitchat about salad and how annoying smartphones can be, a lot of oh-so-contemporary argot ("evalanche"), a lot of complaining and recrimination and interior rumination, and, in the last pages (for the straight characters at least), a sort of happy ending. The novel's two gay characters, Mort and his flamboyant younger lover, Soren Kelly (Chris Hemsworth), are killed offbefore the novel's action even starts, Kelly (natch) by AIDS. FRETFUL AND LUMPEN, Tommy is the novel's ostensible heroine - a woman from whom the show has always been stolen, and from whom, in the course of "A House Among the Trees," it is stolen again, this time by the dashing Nick, an actor who, despite being a 0.5 on the Kinsey scale and British in the extreme ("Crikey!"), seems to make a specialty of playing gay American men. Indeed, he owes his Oscar to "Taormina," an arty melodrama about a gay son and his awful mother, played by the wisecracking and wisdom-dispensing 50-something Dierdre Drake (Diane Lane). Much is made of the conniptions women go into over Nick, even the resolute and stolid Tommy, who, upon meeting him, finds herself unprepared for "how . . . indelible he is. Not sexy or dishy or hunky or any of those insufficiently two-dimensional teeny-bopper adjectives. And he's too thin to be 'handsome,' strictly speaking. But what he is - like a rose in a color you've never laid eyes on before or a dress in a store window that suddenly you dream of wearing on a wedding day you haven't even planned - is impossible to stop looking at, demanding memorization." It goes without saying that before we reach the last page, one of the novel's female characters will end up in bed with Nick. Nor, I think, will I be accused of giving anything away if I say that the winner of this "Queen for a Day" treat turns out to be the character with whom, as any market-research firm could tell you, the novel's core readership will be considered most likely to identify. What else can I say about "A House Among the Trees"? A few things. In contrast to the vast majority of contemporary novels I've read lately, I never found it boring. (My measure of boring is whether, when I read a novel, I forget to notice which page I'm on.) I appreciated the authority with which Glass led me through the highly politicized world of children's literature (new territory to me), her detailed if overlong summaries of Mort Lear's books, several of which I wished existed so that I could read them, the moments of insight and empathy that punctuate her narrative. And yet, for all that, I kept being reminded, as I read on and on, of the feeling I was leftwith after the retina-singeing weekend I spent binge-watching the first season of "Downton Abbey" - of being emptied out and, at the same time, overstuffed. In "Aspects of the Novel," E. M. Forster defined the difference between "story" and "plot" in this way: "in a story we say 'and then?'. . . . in a plot we ask 'why?' " Curiosity kept me reading "A House Among the Trees," yet, as Forster reminds us, in the novel curiosity is never enough. Julia Glass leads readers through the highly politicized world of children's literature. DAVID LEAVITT'S most recent novel is "The Two Hotel Francforts." He is co-director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Florida.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 27, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* When the celebrated children's-book author and illustrator Mort Lear dies in a fall at his Connecticut home, complications quickly ensue. There's his will, for starters. In it, he leaves his estate to Tomasina Tommy Daulair, his personal assistant of many years, even though he had led Merry Galarza, curator of the Contemporary Book Museum, to believe the museum would be the legatee (it holds a large amount of Lear's work on semipermanent loan). Then there is the motion picture that is to be made of Lear's life, starring Oscar-winning British actor Nicholas Greene. The novel rotates among these three characters, interspersed with the occasional flashback that provides context, including the evolution of Tommy's troubled relationship with her younger brother. Glass has created a compelling story with fully realized characters, though there is a whiff of the roman à clef; Lear's work and the complications of his legacy will inevitably remind readers of Maurice Sendak, though there is much here that is different. But both real person and fictional character inhabited the world of children's books, which Glass nicely contextualizes, demonstrating that she has done her homework (though she confuses Library Journal with School Library Journal). The result is a fascinating look at a world in which a creative artist becomes a hot property to be both honored and exploited.--Cart, Michael Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

A terrible attempt at a British accent for a minor character is actor Masterson's only misstep in this otherwise winning performance. Beloved children's literature icon Mort Lear has just died unexpectedly, leaving his longtime assistant Tomasina "Tommy" Daulair to pick up the pieces of his life, including a recently altered will and an in-progress biopic starring the British phenom Nicholas Greene. Reader Masterson excels when playing Mort in flashbacks; her gravelly and playful voice feels perfect for capturing Mort's complicated impulsivity. She also skillfully portrays the self-doubt and crushed hopes of Meredith, the curator of a new museum devoted to children's literature who received Mort's verbal promises of his literary inheritance but was ultimately left in the cold. Where the performance falls short is in Masterson's British accent for actor Nick Greene, which is awkward and inconsistent to the point of distraction. Listeners who are able to get past it will enjoy the layers of drama in this well-told story. A Pantheon hardcover. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair gets a terrible shock when children's author Mort Lear, famous for the beloved classic Colorquake, dies unexpectedly. Tommy is Mort's longtime assistant, though she is actually more like a wife to the gay author-except for the sex, as Tommy's brother Dani snidely points out. Tommy shares Mort's home, but after his death, she is shocked to learn that Mort has left the house and his entire estate to her; she will also be his literary executor. Meanwhile, Meredith, a high-strung museum curator, insists that Mort's artistic holdings were promised to her. There's also a movie about the young Mort in the works, and the charming British actor who is starring in it shows up. The characters in this complex and fascinating novel find themselves coming to terms with secrets and torments from the past as they learn more about Mort's life. VERDICT Since her first novel, Three Junes, Glass has explored family dynamics of all kinds with a warm yet never sentimental sympathy. She excels at bringing her many characters to life and at imagining vivid scenes from the rarified world of art and entertainment in this excellent new book.-Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The sudden death of a successful children's author leaves the survivors to grapple with his legacy and consider the secrets we all keep in this radiant latest from Glass (And the Dark Sacred Night, 2014, etc.).Yes, that famous gay artist bears a striking resemblance to Maurice Sendak, but Glass has been inspired rather than constrained by her prototype. Mort Lear is an original creation, still very much a presence in the novel as it unfolds following his accidental fall from the roof of his Connecticut home. Morty has unexpectedly named longtime live-in assistant Tomasina Daulair his heir and literary executor; he has also vindictively reneged on his promise to bequeath his archives to a New York museum. In addition to this embarrassment, Tommy must deal with the previously scheduled visit of Nicholas Greene, a newly minted movie star about to play Morty in a film. The deftly structured plot centers around that visit and its disruption by the arrival of Meredith Galarza, the jilted museum's director, and Tommy's resentful brother, Dani, who as a boy was the unwitting model for Morty's drawings of Ivo, protagonist of "the book that launched Lear like a NASA space shot." We also learn that Morty had confided to Nick a startling revelation of childhood trauma even more twisted than the story he publicly told of abuse by an older man. But Glass doesn't perpetuate the stereotype of tortured, exploitative genius; she gently explores the complex ways an artist transmutes and transcends his personal history in his work as well as the decisions people around him must make about how much they are willing to subordinate their lives to the needs of someone more gifted and driven. It's typical of the warmhearted Glass that her conclusion finds room for compromise and mutual fulfillment among her full-bodied, compassionately rendered characters. This is a fitting tribute to the man who brought boldness and emotional depth to children's literature: vivid without being simplistic, as grippingly readable as it is thoughtful. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

One     Wednesday     Today, the actor arrives.   Awake too early, too nervous for breakfast (coffee alone makes her more nervous still), fretful over what to wear (then irritated at caring so much), Tommy patrols the house that is now hers, shock­ingly and entirely hers--not just her bedroom and all it contains but everything she can see from its two windows: seven acres of gardens and grass and quickening fruit trees, fieldstone walls and stacks of wood, shed and garage and hibernating pool. The sky above: does she own that, too? Owning the sky would be easy. The sky would be a gift. The sky weighs nothing. The sky is unconditional.   She roams and circles through rooms she knows by heart: living room, dining room, kitchen, den, mudroom, pantry, porch. She can­not enter a room these days without beginning a mental inventory: What to keep? What to give away? (Worse, far worse, how much of it will she sell?) She goes to and from the studio, back and forth between this world and that--in that one, he simply must be alive--so many times that her skirt is now damp from brushing against the tight-fisted buds of the peonies flanking the path.   Will she have to change again?   The birds are in prime song, the sun beyond a promise, the day upon them all. Five hours to fill, and Tommy has no idea how.   She still finds it hard to believe that Morty agreed to this. But he did. He spoke to the actor more than willingly--to Tommy's embar­rassed ears, unctuously--only a few days before his fall. His eager remarks punctuated by a forced, nasal laughter, he said that he looked forward to welcoming the actor to his home and studio, showing him "everything--well, almost everything!"   Unlike many women around the civilized world, Tommy does not yearn to meet or spend time with or even catch sight of Nicholas Greene. That she will be alone with him--if he complies with her conditions, and he must (Yes, Morty, you are not the only one with conditions!)--is even more unsettling, but one thing she knows is that she will not allow a wolf pack of movie people to poke around the premises. It was bad enough letting the art director visit last month. "Just a walkabout to soak up the spirits," he claimed. He arrived with a photographer and two assistants, who managed to trample flat a swath of crocuses emerging from the lawn. Morty behaved like a puppy, tagging along rather than leading them through, setting no limits to their invasion.   She has seen Nicholas Greene's face on the racks at the CVS check­out (though a year ago, Americans hadn't a clue who he was), and she did share Morty's excitement when they watched the Academy Awards and saw the actor hoist his trophy aloft, thank his costars, his director, his agent, and (tearfully) his "courageous, unforgettable mum." Even then, barely three months ago, Tommy was confident that this proposed "biopic" of Morty would, like countless other movie projects, wither on the vine. (How many books of Morty's had been optioned yet never come close to the screen?) She has to won­der if Nicholas Greene's Oscar galvanized the project, to which the actor had already been "attached"--as if he were a garage adjoining a house or a file appended to an e-mail.   There is something shamefully alluring to Americans about a Brit­ish accent, whether it's cockney or sterling-silver Oxbridge. Even Tommy is not immune. Given the choice, who wouldn't rather listen for hours to Alec Guinness or Hugh Grant, over Johnny Depp or even a velvety vintage Warren Beatty? But why in the world, with all the platoons of hungry, gifted, handsome actors out there (Morty was handsome in his youth), would anyone sensible pick an English­man to play a guy who grew up in Arizona and working-class Brook­lyn? Maybe that's why Morty was so enthralled. Maybe he couldn't resist the flattery of seeing his life story told through the medium of a boyishly sexy, upper-crusty-sounding younger man who had been nurtured, almost literally, on Shakespeare and Dickens. Morty had a passion for Dickens. (She will certainly show the actor the glass-front cases containing Morty's book collection; no harm there.)   Once Morty learned that Nicholas Greene had signed on, he asked Tommy to do a little research. As he leaned toward the computer over her shoulder, taking in the googled stills of the actor playing Ariel at the Globe, Sir Gawain in a defunct but cultishly admired TV series, and of course the doomed son in the film that just won him a slew of prizes, Morty's face shed years in expressing his naked delight. It was a face he might have drawn for five-year-olds, a face to be duplicated millions of times, seen by children who spoke and sang and shared their secrets in two or three dozen languages.   Maybe it's because Tommy lived with Morty for twenty-five years and knew him better than anyone else possibly could (even Soren) that she cannot actually see why he would be chosen as the subject of a feature film; not a documentary, which made sense--there were two of those already, one for children, one for adults--but the kind of movie you watch in order to be swept away by crisis or intrigue or menace or laughter or the conquering power of love. Maybe she's too close to Morty's everyday life--"the monotony of quiet creativity, imagination fueled by routine and isolation," he mused aloud in the PBS series--to see it as a source of entertainment. At the same time, she is dead sure that Morty would not want certain details of his life offered up as fodder for strangers' titillation or tears. God forbid they should delve into the mercifully obscured months of his club­bing binge, for instance, the breakdown that led to Soren. Maybe that's why she can't stop rushing about, as if she's taken some kind of mania-inducing drug, fretfully scanning shelves of mementos and knickknacks, walls crowded with framed photos and cartoons and letters, searching for anything that might expose unnecessary per­sonal matters to a curious stranger passing through.   Morty's lawyer, Franklin, has passed through several times, as well as Morty's agent, Angelica, who is still in shock over the will. Frank­lin has always treated Tommy as an equal and seems to like her--or at least he's done a convincing job of pretending. What upsets her (though logically, why should it?) is that Franklin knew about Morty's latest will for weeks. He assures her that Morty meant to sit down with her and explain the reasons for the seismic shift in his inten­tions. He was simply waiting for the right time--because time, he had good reason to assume, was something of which he still had plenty.   Tommy never doubted that Morty would be generous to her, but she had no idea he would leave her the house and the surrounding property outright; even less than no idea that he would name her his literary executor, assigning her a series of detailed responsibilities as variously remote from her experience as foraging for mushrooms or Olympic diving. And some of them will be deeply unpleasant: first and foremost, telling the people at the museum in New York that no, he will not be leaving them the bulk of his artwork and letters and collections and idiosyncratic belongings, as Tommy knows he led them to believe he would do. Now, she must somehow repossess the drawings, manuscripts, and annotated book proofs that have been on loan with the general understanding that the loan was a prelude to a gift . . . a very large gift. Tommy has yet to answer the e-mails and phone messages from the distressed director. Even though Franklin is confident that the museum has no legal grounds for challenging the will, Tommy herself is the one who will have to face up to those messages. She can only hope she won't have to tell the woman why Morty turned sour on them. She doesn't like remembering how easily his ego was bruised these past few years.   She wishes that somewhere among all the legal surprises, Morty had also left directions to cease cooperation with the movie peo­ple. But up through the very last night of his life, he was beyond delighted; he was as close to rapturous as Tommy ever saw him. Silly of her not to have realized that as he aged, his ego was as readily inflated as it was bruised.   As usual, he spent that afternoon working and napping in the stu­dio, then joined Tommy in the kitchen at six. And, as had become his habit in the few days since his second transatlantic conversation with Nicholas Greene, he wanted to talk not about the story or drawings in which he was immersed (how deeply Tommy already misses seeing new images, listening to Morty read out loud new constellations of words--to her before anyone else) but about what it would mean, what it would feel like, to be the subject of a "real-deal movie." Morty never cared much for drink, but that night he went to the back fridge, the extra one they had installed in the early years of Soren (the party years), and rooted out a bottle of true champagne, then stood on a stool to reach a pair of dusty flutes. Tenderly, he soaped and rinsed and polished the glasses, insisting that he and Tommy share a "prop­erly classy toast."   After Tommy returned to sautéing garlic for the linguini with clam sauce that neither of them knew would constitute Morty's last sup­per, he sat at the table, refilled his glass, and rambled on in earnest wonder about the prospect of being played ("Like an instrument!" he exclaimed, miming a violinist) by an actor who had won both an Oscar and whatever the British equivalent was. "Tommy," Morty said--uttering her name with such gravity that she turned away from the stove--"just think: you'll be on my arm at the premiere . . . or I suppose, considering my infirmities, I'll be on yours, my dear." He raised a second toast, to her.   "What infirmities?" she said.   "You know how long these projects take. I'll be eighty by then."   Tommy still saw Morty as essentially youthful, but she had become aware that his agility and sense of balance were diminishing, that he should hire younger men to climb tall ladders or scrunch down into a crawl space. He did not agree. (Last fall she caught him on the phone, trying to cancel the handyman she had hired to clean the gutters.) And so, the next morning, while Tommy was off at the UPS Store, copying and shipping a batch of color sketches for Angelica, Morty climbed out an upstairs window onto the steeply pitched roof above the screened porch, intent on removing a limb that had fallen from the granddaddy maple, his favorite of all the fine old trees for which he had bought this property--a tree whose likeness he had rendered in his books again and again. Tommy knows he waited until her car was out of sight.   Far too often now, she must force her mind to detour sharply away from the predictable ambush of her suffocating sorrow (not guilt, because she was away doing her job, and he was being foolish) when­ever she imagines Morty lying on the flagstones for God knows how long before she reached the end of the driveway and saw him there, out cold--the bough having tumbled down after, landing across his legs. He was already dead, she would learn, but for the time she sat beside him on the damp frigid stone, wishing she could just hold his head in her lap, and for the time the EMTs tried to bring him to consciousness, she had a wish that generally only a wife or a parent would have: Take me instead.   When had she crossed that line, from being the big sister of his favorite model, the boy whose doppelgänger put him on the literary map, and then his indispensable helper, his fifth limb (maid, cook, driver, party escort, website warden, proxy on difficult phone calls, repository of names), to finding herself so inescapably devoted to the man, the porcupine as well as the genius, the hermit as well as--something surprisingly new, perhaps even to him--the starstruck fan? Excerpted from A House among the Trees: A Novel by Julia Glass All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.