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Review: The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Smell of Other People's Houses
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Genre: Historical
Hardback: 230 Pages
Publication: February 23, 2016
by Wendy Lab Books

Alaska: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.


From its cover to its title to its size, The Smell of Other People's Houses is a quiet, unassuming novel at first glance. As each character is introduced, his or her story builds upon the events that have taken place and gives us a fuller image of the lives touched by our protagonists. To get a feel for the structure of this novel, imagine that you're traveling along a plane (here, I'm using the geometrical term); every now and then, a door opens allowing you to peek into the life of one of four characters whose timelines are growing ever closer to each other and are project to intersect in the near future. More than being enthralled in TSoOPH, I felt like I was a benevolent spirit hovering over the characters' shoulders and following their stories in the moment. In this way, TSoOPH was like a documentary but on a deeper, more personal level.

I don't often read novels featuring multiple POVs. From my limited experience, I've found that such novels tend pick up immediately, or even a little before, the moment the last POV left off.  TSoOPH connects the characters' stories in a more subtle manner. Going back to the timeline example, it felt like I was watching the characters grow through vignettes that gave me a glimpse into key moments of their lives. This manner of storytelling is suitable for the novel's purpose in expressing the interconnectedness of life. Over the course of the novel, Hitchcock shows us how four (almost) strangers influence each others lives in a meaningful way as their lives cross paths.

The ending is very open and seemingly inconclusive. Given the experiences gained and lessons learned, you expect that our protagonists will mature into more open-minded, self-assured people, and we do see some of this growth. However, TSoOPH isn't about coming to a stunning conclusion on where Ruth, Dora, Alyce, Hank, or any of their associates end up. TSoOPH is about the journey and the discoveries that they make about themselves and members of their community. In the end, this is what life is really about: making mistakes and learning from them. Like our teenage protagonists, the older members of their community are still growing, and they have as much to learn from the younger generation as the young have to learn from them.

Lastly, go in prepared to rage, cry, have your heart broken, have your breath taken away. You will hate characters, then feel for them when you learn their story (even if you cannot entirely love them). You will pity some and loathe some even more. You will laugh and rejoice over new relationships that form as more lives cross paths.

In particular, I direct you to the end of chapter thirteen. Words alone cannot express the feels. My heart overflowed 'hearing' Ruth say, "I want to know that both of us have something good to look forward to." Her words touch on a subject that is near and dear to my heart for what they have to say on the value of life. Once you finish this chapter, go back to the beginning and reread the title; in the context of this chapter, the title—and this chapter—becomes even more poignant and significant. When you're done with this novel, go back and reread the chapters in the context of their titles and the season in which they take place. There is meaning layered throughout different elements of this novel. I will certainly be rereading it for the elements I missed out on in the first read.

TSoOPH is a breathtaking debut from Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock that draws from her personal experiences growing up in Alaska (for more information, check out her bio). Needless to say, I look forward to more from her!

A copy was provided by Random House for review

Rating: 5 stars

  • N/A
  • Domestic Violence
  • Masturbation (suggested)
  • Sex
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Teenage runaways

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