Title: "Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House"
Author: Meghan Daum
Publisher: Knopf, 2010; 256 pages; $24.95
For several years now, we’ve heard over and over the judgy, finger-shaking comments, "Who are those people that were stupid enough to take those bad loans?" "An ARM? That’s crazy! People are so clueless." So many Americans acting like they’ve never even met someone dumb enough to do whatever it takes to get their dream home (knowing all the while that they just e-mailed me trying to figure out how to refinance their own soon-to-reset ARM!).
This obsession with home and the whole-life transformation it can either create or reflect is probably more a primal human characteristic than a fleeting, economic one.
Injecting a fresh, easy-on-the-economic-analysis and super-smart-and-funny voice into the now-stale conversation about why we feel the way we do about homes and house hunting, comes Los Angeles Times real estate columnist and frequent NPR contributor Meghan Daum with her new book, "Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House."
More accurately, Daum addresses why we feel the way we do about our homes less than how she felt — and still feels — about the prospect of a new home, and the prospect of life therein even after she bought her first home.
"Life Would be Perfect" is less real estate market analysis than a memoir of a real estate-obsessed 21st-century woman — with all the powers of that demographic’s light, charming and sometimes self-deprecating self-observation.
Daum is the first to say, "I’m not saying, ‘Do what I do.’ Some of this was probably unhealthy." But it’s not unfunny — and it’s a welcome breath of fresh air that she doesn’t spin a tale of woe — it’s more a tale of want. She calls it a "house lust," but I’d probably say it’s more a lust for the alternative lives she, and many real estate fans, envision could take place in various homes.
She walks the reader through a lifelong home mania, an apparently hereditary hand-me-down from her mother, who Daum says "liked to take walks at night so she could see into other people’s houses."
From her mother, who was obsessed with shelter magazines before "they became the wallpaper of the nation itself," Daum also inherited her habit of visiting open houses for sport, even out of state. To a young Meghan tagging along on her mother’s open house trips, it seemed "as if she were dangling a new life in front of me."
Daum spins the tale of her college years, during which her precocious obsession with home was the central motivating factor of her life decisions.
"I chose my college not because of its outstanding faculty or its resplendent campus," Daum writes, "but for what I believed it could deliver me into when I was done: a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan," a vision complete with details about the life she would live in said apartment, from how much coffee she would drink to the literary awards she would win and the vintage clothes and furniture that would be hers in this home.
After a college career in which she moved dorm rooms nearly every semester — another quest for the perfect life and home — Daum retells a series of homes and lives, from her post-collegiate Manhattan years lived in a series of apartments variously memorable for the smells of mildew or the neighbors’ chicken and plantains, to her "Little House on the Prairie"-inspired years in Lincoln, Neb., riddled with dreams and efforts at buying a farm.
Fast forward two and a half years from her move to Lincoln and Daum moves to Southern California. Flush with cash from selling a novel, Daum was positioned — for the first time ever — to consider actually buying a home, and began to intersperse her serial moves, from a rented room with a landlord who Daum suspected had "some kind of Asperger’s-like social disorder," to a redbrick rancher on a temporary detour back to Nebraska, to a Beachwood Canyon dogsit, with offers to buy various homes, similarly diverse in description.
During these years, Daum dated almost not at all — her true love was an infatuation with these homes — and she recalls: "No wonder I hadn’t needed sex. I was drowning in the eros of real estate."
After a brief romantic relationship with another human being, Daum found herself back in love with homes, and on a mission to buy one of her own.
She chronicles not only her house hunt, her Realtor’s admonitions that she might have to "stretch" to get what she wanted in time to avoid "getting priced out of the market," and her mother’s repeated declarations about homes hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Daum’s price range: "Meghan, this is your house!" but also her obsession with cable TV "shelter smut" and her card-carrying membership in America’s "cult of real estate," circa 2004.
In the last chapters of "Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House," Daum buys her first home, remodels it, gets married and then tells the uber-relatable tale of the angst of two grown-ups consolidating their belongings into her space. At the time of this writing, Daum and her husband are in the process of selling this home to buy one together.
Og Mandino said, "Laugh at yourself and at life … as a remedy, a miracle drug, that will ease your pain, cure your depression, and … laugh at your predicaments.
Daum’s ability to laugh at herself and her home-obsessed foibles, and her willingness to share them with us so that we can laugh, too, is, to Mandino’s point, both medicinal and miraculous — an antidote to the ubiquitous recessionary yuck and gloom to which I, for one, am ready to bid adieu.