If you remember my review for Marcelo in the Real World, you’ll know that I had a hard time with the book because I didn’t know the intended audience. For me, intended audience makes a huge difference whether a title is a hit or a miss.
How to Build a House by Dana Reinhardt is one of the books on this year’s Read for a Lifetime list. It’s a concept I think a lot of teen relate to. Harper’s family in Los Angeles is in disarray, and rather than allow herself to be saddened by it all summer, she decides to join a non-religious non-profit program that would allow her to involve herself in a summer-long community service project. More specifically, she’s going to help rebuild a house in Bailey, Tennessee that was destroyed in a major tornado. As someone who’s actually done exactly this, I was so intrigued by the idea and know there are a lot of other people who would love reading about this.
Harper’s dad and step mother are getting a divorce, which is tearing apart the family Harper came to believe was so great. Her sister through the marriage, Tess, was her best friend. Jane, her step mom, was the mother she never had. Things were perfect until her father tore the family apart through an extramarital affair. Harper turned to her best friend Gabriel, who also happened to be a guy she really had a lot of feelings for, and they were mutual feelings. At least that’s what she thought until she saw who Gabriel was kissing one night at a party.
Getting out made sense. And Bailey, Tennessee, was the perfect place to hid out. She’s never going to be known here, and she has no reasons to make any ties. This is the ideal summer project. Oh, and this is also the perfect way for Harper to feel like she’s giving back to the earth us humans are ruining through global warning. Why else would Katrina happen and why else would more and more tornadoes keep happening and destroying people’s lives?
Sure, she’s building a house, but she ends up finding romance with one of the members of the family who will be receiving the house when it’s done.
While How to Build a House sounds sweet and relatable, I found it fell flat on a lot of levels. First, I thought the metaphor was far too obvious and far too drawn out. Yes, the family fell apart like a tornado tore apart the house and it takes team work and communication to rebuild both. Oh, yeah, don’t forget that through team work and communication we can also stop global warming. It was just far. too. much.
I found Harper to be a smug main character. She seems bitter the entire time she’s on the trip, and she’s the one who chose to go. Her discussion of Christian and country music got so irritating because she thought she was so above both of them — and I thought that reiteration of Christian ideas as “bad” was irritating. I’m not sure that’s what Reinhardt intended, but if it was, I don’t think it hit the nail right on nor will the right audience get it. And if it’s not the intention, this is going to turn off many, many readers.
Perhaps my real issue was that this is targeted at the wrong audience. Teens aren’t going to buy this metaphor because it literally hits them far too hard over the head. I almost felt this a bit insulting to the reader. It could have been more smoothly woven or more interestingly developed. The smugness of Harper won’t resonate with readers who just aren’t going to give her a chance. Additionally, while it’s clear no one has a perfect family, I think the “broken family” trope has exhausted its opportunities in the teen lit world, and this is not breaking down any additional barriers. Maybe readers will relate to the sister/best friend relationship.
That said, I think this is a good read for adult audiences looking for something sentimental. That’s not to say this isn’t a worthwhile book; it’s just mismarketed. Even with Harper, the protagonist, as a teenager, I think adults will connect with the idea more because their ideas and ideals of family are more mature. This is the sort of book they can read and reflect upon and really feel connected to. There are a lot of moral ideas discussed here that will resonate with them. The story moves slow, and the metaphor will mean more to those who have literally built a family from the foundation, to the room, to the storm shelter. I don’t think teens can really relate to that.
Overall, I think teens will find some enjoyment in the idea of reaching outside oneself to help others in need, but beyond that, they may find the topic and metaphor overworked and underdeveloped. But handing this one to fans of family-centric or relationship-centric adult titles might be the perfect way to introduce readers to some of the stuff out there marketed for teens that really appeal to adults on a different level.