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Abandoned by his wife and achingly cognizant of his own blameworthiness in the matter, Leon Olen takes a $50,000 inheritance and his young son and daughter and opens The House of Gentle Men in 1940's Louisiana.  Guilt ridden men come to the House in order to pay their debt to women by holding and kissing and chastely loving them, but never having sex with them.  Women visit the house seeking this kind of "courtly love" from gentle men.  Mr. Olen envisions a place where:

    ...men could live in the service of unkissed, overworked, underappreciated, tired, sad, prematurely
    gray, widowed, nervously single, despondently married women.  Sad women starving for love, their
    bodies married to labor.  no longer meant to be seen, but to do.  Now these women finally had a
    house of their own, fragrant with affection, reeking of ammonia, sitting off the dirt road and
    surrounded by crape myrtle.  A secret place to which they could flee and be women again, kissed
    and waltzed against, whispered to, touched with just the fingertips.

Olen hopes that  by demonstrating his understanding that this is the type of love that women truly seek, rather than the sort of raw carnality that men offer, he will earn a Second Chance and his wife will return to him.   The House is successful on some levels, but townsfolk speak of it's castrated men, Olen's son preys sexually on women who leave the house feeling unfulfilled and it reeks of ammonia because his daughter, obsessed with germs and cleanliness, is continually washing and cleaning the place, waging war on germs as much as her father wages war on virility.  The daughter's only passion, other than cleanliness, is for a mysterious golden haired, impossibly blue-eyed baby she found by an oak stump in the woods, a baby who has grown into an angelic young boy, his tender touch and gentle kisses able to ease the suffering of even the most damaged women who visit the House.

Meanwhile, a local girl named Charlotte has been struck dumb after being raped by three soldiers who were out on exercises preparing to go to War.  In the wake of this brutality, following hard on the heels of her young brother accidentally immolating their mother while trying to build a funeral pyre for a pigeon, Charlotte found herself pregnant as a result of the rape.  Unable to face what surely must be a demon growing inside of her, she abandoned the newborn in the woods.

These stories intertwine when Justin, a soldier just returned from the War, comes to the House, hoping to expiate a guilt so horrible he refuses to speak of it.  When he does reveal his crime, Mr. Olen is so shocked that he refuses to allow him to join the House and Justin tries to hang himself.  This earns him the right to seek redemption and perhaps inevitably, he ends up with Charlotte, who he recognizes as his victim, though she is not aware of his identity.

When I was about three quarters of the way through this book, my wife asked me if I liked it.  I told her I hadn't decided yet.  I described it as a Female Field of Dreams.  Besides both being fables, there are several parallels.  Ray Kinsella feels compelled to build his Field in order to heal the pain of various men who have abandoned their own dreams, most importantly the father whom Ray rejected in his insolent youth (see full review).  Mr. Olen builds his House in order to heal the pain of women, by giving them the type of gentle sexless love they long for, hoping thereby to merit reconciliation with the wife he neglected.  Ray's voice tells him, "If you build it, He will come"; Mr, Olen believes that if he builds it, She will come.  That all worked for me; the story is compelling and I was willing to suspend disbelief.

My reluctance to give myself over completely was more a function of the seeming message of the story; I was troubled by the pretty relentlessly negative portrayal of men in the book and by the idealization of women.  The vision of man that is shared by the Olens, their patrons and by the men of the house themselves seems to be at odds with the very nature of the beast.  And, yes, I am willing to concede the beastliness of man. But, recognizing my own tendency towards misogyny, I've made a conscious effort to read more fiction by and for women in the past year, especially reading group books and Oprah choices (see reviews), and much of it tends to express this sort of anti-male sentiment.

Happily, these concerns were addressed in the final quarter of the book as the artificial order that the Olens seek to impose on the House begins to break down.  Relationships between characters become less chaste, more realistic, more truly human, allowing for the possibility of genuine reconciliation and redemption.  Simultaneously, Olen's daughter, jilted in an affair of the heart, ceases her cleansing regime; the end of physical sterility for the House accompanying the end of emotional and spiritual sterility for the denizens.  In the final dramatic scenes of the book, with the House being consumed by fire (a more patently male symbol that the feminine water that the daughter had been wont to slather it with), even Charlotte's brother, a suspect in a series of arsons after his unfortunate pyrotechnic experience, is redeemed, realizing that he is a firefighter not a fire starter.

We are left with a proper balance restored, with the realization that men contain elements of both gentleness and violence, fire and water, love and hate.  It is the unique mystery of humankind that we, all of us, hold within our nature Justin the rapist, Justin the despairing self-destroyer, Justin the gentle lover of women and Justin the Father.

After those initial trepidations, I really liked this book.  The story is beautifully written and filled with ineffable images.  The narrative is somewhat elliptical, doubling back on itself so that events are told and retold from the perspective of different characters.  This is a device that has become familiar, think Pulp Fiction, but the effect here is never confusing and the technique never seems gratuitous.  Best of all, the author brings to her story a clarity of vision and a generosity of spirit that confound easy expectations and make for a really rewarding, uplifting reading experience.

Ms Hepinstall and a couple of other authors have recently contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing their books.  I am grateful that she gave me this opportunity and can only hope that other submissions are equally good.  I wish her the best of luck with the book and fully expect to be hearing more about it.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Kathy Hepinstall (2 books reviewed)
Author Submissions
Kathy Hepinstall Links:

    -REVIEW: of Prince of Lost Places by Kathy Hepinstall (Laura Lippman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of THE PRINCE OF LOST PLACES by Kathy Hepinstall (January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Prince of Lost Places by Kathy Hepinstall (Laura Lippman, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The House of Gentle Men (Author Website)
    -BIO: (Avon/Bard Books)
    -Official Book Site (Avon/Bard Books)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One  (Feminista)
    -INTERVIEW : Kathy Hepinstall  (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter,  February 9, 2001)
    -Interview: Kathy Hepinstall's House of Gentle Persuasions (Lit Kit)
    -INTERVIEW: Beyond the Pages: Kathy Hepinstall (Romance Journal)
    -Nineteen Forty-One (story from The New Delta Review by Eyster Prize Winner: Kathy Hepinstall)
    -ESSAY: Austin writer presents novel view of redemption (San Antonio Express-News Columnist: Judyth Rigler)
    -ESSAY: The House of Gentle Men:  A New Novel by Kathy Hepinstall (Alternative Media US, About.com)
    -REVIEW : of House of Gentle Men (Joe Hartlaub, Book Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of House of Gentle Men (Margaret Gunning, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of The House of Gentle Men (Mostly Fiction)
    -REVIEW: (Anne Dingus, Texas Monthly)
    -REVIEW: (Susan Scribner, The Romance Reader)
    -REVIEW: (Coffeerooms Bookmark)
    -ARTICLE: Booknews (Edited by Judy Quinn, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: (KATHERINE CATMULL, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: The House of Gentle Men  Novel by Kathy Hepinstall (Cara Bobchek, PIF)
    -REVIEW: The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall  Rating:  ... "Outstanding." (Heather Froeschl, Bookideas.com)

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