House Lights By Leah Hager Cohen
The new novel by Leah Hager Cohen, House Lights, makes for a perfect summer-time read. It's no great drama – just a well written, satisfying novel. We first meet our heroine, Beatrice, as she describes the childhood walks she often took with her father, along a river, into a park – a precious time for her with the father she adores. Beatrice Fisher-Hart is the only child of professional parents and has lived a very privileged life. We begin the story the summer just before her 20th birthday.
Against her parents advice Beatrice is postponing university to spend a year pursuing her dream of becoming an actress. Beatrice’s grandmother was a famous stage actress and it is to her that Beatrice turns for help. Beatrice knows little of her grandmother, there were very few visits during her childhood, nor does she know why her mother and grandmother have been estranged.
Beatrice begins to attend salons hosted by her grandmother and frequented by people from the theatre world.
These people seem so much at ease while Beatrice, who “despaired of ever being able to relate so offhandedly, with such confidence and ownership, an equally fabulous story while reaching for a handful of almonds on someone else’s coffee table” feels herself out of place.
She fiercely wants to belong to this world as she moves toward rejecting the world of her parents, and her parents themselves.
Beatrice tells the story, 20 years later, as she remembers this earlier time. The reason for the estrangement of her mother and grandmother is a complicated one, and Beatrice tries to understand it from the perspective of both women. Beatrice is also trying to understand what is happening to her father, who has been accused of professional sexual misconduct. The man she adored unconditionally is now suspect. Her world is changing. Her summer job takes her away from home in the daytime, she works as an interpreter at a sort of pioneer village, The Homestead, where she dresses in costume portraying the life of a woman a century earlier, making up stories to embellish the script she has memorized.
This is a young woman struggling to understand her parents – her mother’s loyalty to her father, who, it turns out, has faced similar accusations in the past – as well as her own actions. She considers that even thoughtlessness, in spite of lack of intent, can cause such lasting harm.
There are opportunities to talk with her mother that are lost to her, words forever left unsaid.
When Beatrice is asked to take a part in a summer theatre production on a farm, where she must live for the duration, she leaps at the opportunity to leave both her job and her parents' home. Here she comes into much closer contact with a friend of her grandmother’s, an actor and director, Hale – a man old enough to be her father.
Leah Hager Cohen weaves the story of now and then effortlessly with perfect understanding of the struggles of a young woman adjusting to the sifting relationships that come with growing up.
As Beatrice gains maturity and finds love herself she is more able to understand, if not accept and forgive, her parents for their actions.
Twenty years later the novel ends with Beatrice and her father as it began. The relationship has dramatically changed, but they are still father and daughter.