When the first book of this project, The House on Teacher’s Lane by Rachel Simon, shows up in my mailbox, I can’t wait to start reading. But first, I do what I always do — check out the cover, a nice photo of an old row house on a leafy street. Then I read the blurb — sounds good, promises to be “life affirming.” Inside the cover I find lots of quotes about the author’s previous book. It seems like that book, Riding the Bus with my Sister, about Simon’s relationship with her developmentally disabled sister was a bestseller and adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. A hard act to follow.
The House on Teacher’s Lane is a story about love and family relationships set within the framework of rehabbing a hundred year old row house in the small city of Wilmington, Delaware. I read chapter one and think, Yes! This is just what I was hoping for. I discover that the author’s neighborhood, “sandwiched between downtown office towers at the hill’s peak and a genteel park at the hill’s bottom” is a real community where neighborly gatherings are common and people care about each other. It’s a place where you can walk to do errands or down to the park across a nineteenth century stucco bridge and along a cobblestone road. Walking along the Brandywine Parkway toward the river, you might even spot a great blue heron. Simon and her husband see one all the time. They’ve named him Edward. There’s a zoo and a major hospital and it’s close to the interstate, but quiet. It seems lovely.
The house itself has a terra cotta porch, a heavy oak front door, hardwood floors, plaster walls and working transom windows. Just before the project begins, Simon and her husband share a moment holding hands and looking out at the street from the third floor music room. She says, It seemed as if we were in a glass ship sailing down a river of row houses and trees, embarking on a voyage that transcended our failed past. I can picture the majestic sycamores which line the street and drape one set of windows while the sunlight streams in. I think about their failed past. Simon and her husband, Hal, have only been married a few years after having an on again, off again relationship for nineteen years. Nineteen! It seems she couldn’t commit and didn’t recognize all of Hal’s great qualities until she spent time away from him. But now they’re back together and living their happily ever after.
Near the end of chapter one, Simon muses: “Is it possible that I’m beginning to see less of what isn’t and more of what is?” And herein lies the rub. Simon seems a bit of a whiner. She does seem to always comment on what isn’t — what’s lacking in relationships with her husband and her family, what’s lacking in the old house. The concept here is that against the backdrop of the construction project, Simon works on her relationships in the same way her husband works on their remodel. But I don’t think these two ideas echo each other in a convincing way in this memoir. And, for my purposes, I’m looking for a book that gives me a real sense of Delaware as a place. Early on, Simon notes that while Hal thinks in terms of things you can see or hear . . . my conversation seldom strayed from emotions and memory and relationships and the meaning of life.” Alas, this is also true. Only in chapter one do I get a sense of what makes Wilmington unique. The rest of the book could be happening in Anywhere, U.S.A. There is some lovely writing here, and Simon has some useful things to say about relationships and what it takes to keep them viable, but the memoir lacks what I am looking for and this worries me.
I realize that in my first attempt to explain exactly what I’m after in my quest to read a book about each state, I have not made myself clear. After all, I’m just beginning this journey, trying to figure it out while I dive right in, or drive right through. But wait. The bookseller at Ninth Street Book Shop mentioned another Delaware writer first, Christopher Castellani. I should look him up! Even though his latest novel takes place in Italy, the earlier ones in this family trilogy are set in Wilmington. But they might be out of print. I log on to the Seattle Public Library catalog. Turns out that the second in the trilogy, The Saint of Lost Things, the story of an Italian couple who move to Wilmington to start a new life in the 1950’s, is available so I order it up with my fingers crossed.