The House of Gentle Men

Kathy Hepinstall, Author
Kathy Hepinstall, Author William Morrow & Company $22 (352p) ISBN 978-0-380-97809-0
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-380-80936-3
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Set in rural Louisiana during and after WWII, this odd but appealing first novel is a disconcerting yet harmonious mix of realistic characters and place, with a fable-like premise that is initially hard to accept but acquires resonance as the book draws to a redemptive close. The title is literal, referring to a retreat where men who have sinned can stay and do penance by befriending damaged women who come to visit. Dancing, talking, cuddling, every intimate interchange short of intercourse is permitted. The men live in the house; the women arrive in the evening and often spend the night. With this quixotic project, grieving Leon Olen hopes to win back the wife who abandoned him and their two children eight years before. Nearby lives mute-by-choice Charlotte Gravin, a young woman who eight years earlier was raped by three soldiers from a nearby army camp; only two weeks before the rape, her mother died in a fire. Eventually, Charlotte is drawn to the house, as is Justin, who alone of the rapists feels remorse. Charlotte wrestles with guilt, too. Impregnated by one of the rapists, Charlotte carried the baby to term; convinced the infant was a demon, she left him in the woods. The question she faces is whether she can forgive Justin and by so doing forgive herself. Multiple subthemes and motifs-including many references to fire as purifier and destroyer-supplement the central question of the nature of aggression and the possibilities of redemption. Charlotte's brother, Milo, is an arsonist; Louise, Leon's 17-year-old daughter, who cleans compulsively to ""sterilize"" her environment, has internalized her rage about her family's dynamics. Her brother, Benjamin, in rebellion against his father, tries to seduce the comforted women as they leave the house. Although the coincidences are Dickensian and the notion of a sexual halfway house remains problematic, Hepinstall is deft at developing believable personalities and structuring a moral landscape in which they can find insight to reconnect with their better selves. Agent, Henry Dunow. Author tour. (Feb.)
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