cover image The Little House

The Little House

Philippa Gregory. HarperCollins Publishers, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017670-9

Gregory's sixth novel moves from her usual historical fiction (A Respectable Trade, etc.) to a contemporary tale that treats familiar, middle-class domestic ground with a horrific tilt. Every Sunday, Ruth and Patrick Cleary, a young English couple married just four years, visit Patrick's parents in Bath. Both Ruth and Patrick work in news production, but even in the common area of career the balance of attention tips heavily toward Patrick. Ruth feels like an outsider in the close-knit Cleary family, and Patrick and his parents are oblivious to her pain. Orphaned since childhood, Ruth has always yearned for love and a sense of belonging. In the first flush of passion, Patrick promised these; he even promised to help Ruth recover her lost childhood by traveling back to her childhood home in Boston. Snugly married and absorbed by his career, however, Patrick has lost track of his wife and his promises. When the cottage at the end of the lane from his parents' manor house comes up for sale, he sells the Bristol condo Ruth loves without a thought. Ruth soon becomes a poster-girl for co-dependence: she loses her job and unwillingly becomes pregnant. After her son is born, she sinks into depression, allowing her mother-in-law to take over completely. Finally, she is manipulated into a ""rest home"" where she becomes zonked on antidepressants. Hitting bottom, Ruth rallies, only to take control of her life in a joltingly twisted way. Gregory writes smoothly enough, but her insights into the dysfunctional family are only pedestrian, laying fallow ground for a surprise ending that neither horrifies nor enlightens. (Oct.)