The Giants House: A Romance

The Giant’s House: A Romance

What is the story behind that person who served you coffee this morning? What love has tortured the cab driver who gazes listlessly at you, awaiting a destination? What was the 82-year woman living next door like when she was just 25?
Everyone has a story, but that fact is not always obvious. In Elizabeth McCraken’s novel, The Giants House: A Romance, we find two characters with different lives, but similar needs. The setting is in the 1950’s and Peggy Cort is a 26-year-old librarian in a small town. Create a librarian stereotype, an Cort fits the mold — unmarried, cold, orderly, and predictable. We are introduced to her and the book with the line, “I do not love mankind.”
But what she will love is 11-year-old James Sweatt, a tall boy on his way to becoming a giant. In fact, by the end of the novel he is over 8-feet tall, although he is not yet 20 years old. While Peggy can live her life in anonymity, James has no choice but to show his story every time he steps out of the house.
Both characters are alienated from others who cannot understand their lives. Instead, they connect with each other and we watch as James grows up (literally) and Peggy becomes more a part of his life. She becomes immersed in his family and finally in James himself.
It is not giving away anything to say they love one another — the subtitle is “a romance.” But common notions of romance are lost as we see these two different people seeking some solace in the world. It is not a romance of bodies, but of lives.
McCracken has a deft hand, especially in this debut novel (1996).  Early, when talking with James’ mother about his father, who left them long ago, she says to her:
“‘Ah. You’ve forgotten him.’
‘No.’ She sighed. ‘I can’t forget him. I don’t even try.'”
It is a line which reveals so much of James’ mother’s heartache and inability to move forward, yet it is done simply and undramatically.  The narrator notes that it sounds like the line of a popular song, “and she made it sound like the truest sentence there ever was.”
And while the topics are serious, McCracken injects humor through the observations of both Peggy and James. Peggy’s quiet life masks an attentive spirit who misses little and dismisses much. She talks about her dislike of weddings, not because she was jealous — she was only jealous of love. “The sight of a couple furtively holding hand beneath a restaurant table was more likely to remind me of the hopelessness of my life than any number of ladies dressed in giant christening gowns reciting words to become joined to a man in a rented suit.”
I will not reveal any endings, but suffice it say that McCracken refuses to take the easy way out. Apparently McCracken used the life of real-life giant Robert Wadlow, who died in 1940. Like Wadlow, James is from a small town and does promotional stints for a shoe manufacturer and time with the circus. McCracken herself was a librarian until taking to writing. But whether Wadlow loved a librarian is not really important. This is not a story of how we appear, but who we are.

When to give up on a book?

Perhaps it was how I was raised. I participated in sports from my youngest years and all through high school; the most basic lesson was — never quit. Once you join a team you are committed to that team at least for the season, so you tough it out no matter what happens. I’m not sure this is the best advice, but I recognize it as part of me.

So, does this apply to books as well? When you start a book you make a commitment to the writer to give serious attention to what they have written. It seems almost insulting not to show them some patience, some grace, in delving into their work. It is a relationship, and relationships take time and effort.

I remember seeing an interview with the children’s book writer, Maurice Sendak (and I can still quote “Where the Wild Things Are” from memory thanks to four children), and he said children have no such qualms when approaching a book. If they don’t like it, they throw it across the room and move on to another book.

But what about adults? I recently gave up on a book, which is truly a rare occurrence for me. It was Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives,” a work which has won a great deal of praise. Given all the rave reviews and endorsements by great writers, I should be loving this book. Instead, after 100 pages I could not take it anymore. I’ll blame myself — maybe I just “don’t get it.” But listening to the narrators pornographic descriptions of his sex life, which had just begun and was off to a roaring start, was getting old. There were few characters I wanted to learn more about (except the really interesting “crazy” father of his first-tryst), and any movement anywhere was just not happening. From my understanding of the story I know this change will come, but I will not be around to see it.

So why did I finally give up? I was dreading reading it. Simple as that. When I realized I was approaching a book as a chore instead of an opportunity, it was time to move on. I read plenty of books I did not like in college and grad school, but I feel little impetus to do so anymore. I do not seek easy books, but I want to know the challenge is paying off.

So should I not recommend this book? Since plenty of people are seeing something in it, you may well love it. I would love to hear that. You just will not be reading that here.

And I’m curious — when do the rest of you stop reading a book?