A House Named Brazil

Audrey Schulman, Author William Morrow & Company $23 (320p) ISBN 978-0-380-97799-4
A series of long telephone conversations make up the bulk of this beguiling, episodic third novel by Schulman (The Cage; Swimming with Jonah). One evening in 1977, 19-year-old Fran receives an unexpected call from her mother, Gloria, who has been gone for four and a half years, leaving Fran alone in their Ontario farmhouse. Barely saying hello, Gloria launches into the beguiling history of the Mourne family, back to her mysterious great-grandmother, who never married yet bore 14 children on the Ontario farm. During the brutal winter of 1887, Gloria's great-grandmother dies, but her lilac-scented body refuses to decompose, and the children are inspired to build a shrine and charge admission to view her. ""She was a saint,"" Gloria insists. Cessil, the eldest son, and Celia, the firstborn, assume the care of their siblings, a briefly amicable arrangement until Celia reaches an ""opulent"" motherly puberty, a transformation that leaves Cessil resentful. After a time, a family brawl gets out of hand, and Celia and Cessil escape to make their separate fortunes. The tales continue in this leisurely vein, related matter-of-factly and crowded with more and more eccentric relatives. The family eventually reunites in Fort Lauderdale, where Cessil settles down with Anita, a diminutive cigar-smoking Brazilian, and produces nine children, housing all of them--and his own siblings, too--in a sprawling, swampy house dubbed Brazil. As the Mourne family tree takes shape, so does Fran's personality. An odd, gawky teenager, she relies on solitude and sameness, but as her sense of self grows stronger, she begins to resolve her feelings for her mother and reach beyond the confines of the farm. Like the immense titular house, the novel sprawls untidily (an inexplicable present-day Fran occasionally intrudes upon the story of the '70s Fran, for example), but its absurd charms, entrancing characters and sumptuous language more than make up for its shapelessness. Contributing to the inventive spirit, b&w photographs of ""family members"" and increasingly annotated family trees accompany the text. Agent, Richard Parks. Northeastern regional author tour. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-380-80880-9
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