“I just wanted everything to be up-front, that’s all.”
“House of Destiny” by Janet Leigh (1996)
Jude Abavas and his family are Basques who settle in Idaho. The family becomes part of the business community in and around Sun Valley, eventually becoming wealthy landowners. Jude has ingratiated himself with Hollywood types visiting Idaho and befriends popular young actor Wade Colby. After tragedy robs him of his family, Jude travels to Hollywood to renew his friendship with Wade. The two eventually go into the movie business together, becoming successful studio magnates.
House of Destiny travels through the Hollywood of mid-century, the 1940’s through to the 1960’s. Not surprising that Janet Leigh tackled this subject for her first novel as that is the era that saw her become one of the most popular actresses in the business. The good news is that Miss Leigh is well-equipped to tell a story that is authentically “Hollywood”. The players in her book react to things that are established parts of history like the House Un-American Committee hearings, writers strikes and helping JFK get elected, all things that Leigh would have first-hand knowledge about. She even places herself into he action; at one point, a group of characters in the book go to a party at Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis’ house. Years later, at another party, one mentions how attractive Janet Leigh’s new husband is.
The bad news is that Janet Leigh’s way of telling the story – the actual words, phrases and sentences she uses – is deadly dull. I’ve always had a predilection to write dialogue as it is spoken in real life. My grade ten teacher who inspired me to write – I may have had a minor crush on her – said my colloquialisms were well done. Here’s where Janet Leigh the novelist fails miserably. The dialogue is generic and phoney and the reader comes away page after page knowing real people don’t speak that way; it comes off as disingenuous.
Another issue is in how these characters seem to be wired. There is not much conflict in the hearts and minds of the characters and they love purely, intensely and without reservation. They seem to suffer no questions or doubts, only those of the every-day-life variety; should I marry Artie or Vincent? And between family members and between friends, there is just perfect love. House of Destiny doesn’t offer the reader much real drama, just life stories with a lot of events – and exact dates!
It is, however, interesting to track a family’s progress through the generations and I like stories like this. But I think what’s missing here is decadence. The lack of treachery or malicious intent in most of these characters makes the book, well, boring. It’s not as much of a soap opera as it could be. Something being described as “soapy” is generally being maligned but at least soapy is fun and you become invested in the characters. There is much tragedy in House of Destiny but that tragedy doesn’t come from someone being entertainingly devious – tragedy just happens. Poor guy gets cancer. Boom. It’s almost as if Miss Leigh plotted her book by 1) picking an exact date for every birth, death and anniversary and 2) mapping her book by planning the events that occur by simply saying “something bad will happen, then good. Then something else good happens, but then bad. Then bad, bad, good, bad, good, good, good…”.
The seemingly boring quote I’ve used from the book at the outset of this review is just a good example of what is “bad” about the novel. No one goes out on a limb, no one bends the rules to get ahead, no one sneaks behind someone’s back… Instead the characters just want everything to be up front. Everyone’s honourable. Jude and Wade love the same girl but when Wade professes his love first, Jude just shuts up and eats it. Later, he devotes himself to Penelope and her kids, denying himself any proclamations of love or any happiness for himself. What a great guy. What a great, boring guy. The novel lacks dynamism though I can see that an attempt was made to provide a slight twist of an ending; the prologue – presented as happening years after the events of the book – may contain a bit of trickery and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It was a bit like clickbait. You go through the whole book wondering how the main character gets to the point presented in the prologue but when the “pay-off” comes the reader may feel like she’s been sold a bill of goods.
There is enjoyment to be had though in House of Destiny. The enjoyment you will get from the book comes as it would from any novel telling a sprawling family story that traverses decades and generations. You just may come away wishing better stuff happened. Jude’s much younger sister, Revel, settles down and dotes on her older brother. This put me in mind of the way Connie Corleone was with her brother, Michael. But beyond that, no characters here really stand out or demand that you cheer them on or root against them or even care what they do. I can eat rice cakes all night long. They help cure my hunger, are low in calories and there’s something about their blandness that makes me keep eating them. But I don’t order them when I’m out on the town nor do I eat them on a Saturday night with an event movie. They’re not fun, they’re business. In much the same way, House of Destiny is a book; I like books. It’s a big, ol’, sprawling family story and that’s nice, too. But its just business, this book; it’s a “business read”. It’s dry as a rice cake.