Reviewed by J.B. Leddington
Bailey Merlin explores love and loss in the time of COVID-19 with aplomb in A Lot of People Live in This House.
Bailey Merlin’s A Lot of People Live in This House is an emotionally resonant novel that captures the essence of life—the good, the bad, and the bonkers—during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Set principally in No. 888, a house of multiple occupancy located on a hill in Boston, the story follows Rachel as she attempts to settle into her new home.
“In many cultures, the number eight is seen as a sign of prosperity because, turned on its side, eight is the symbol for infinity, of perpetual new beginnings. Prosperity aside, living with ten strangers isn’t her idea of a good time.”
Unfortunately for Rachel, the move, which was prompted by the tragic death of her only child, could not have gotten off to a worse start. No only does she have to contend with meeting and cohabiting with a bunch of strangers, she initially has to do so alone because her husband, Job, has chosen to attend a two-week meditation retreat in India before joining her in Boston.
“It was easier to be brave for Job when they were saying goodbye to one another in Egypt because bravery is easier to muster in warmer places.”
Still, things take yet another turn for the worse when the COVID-19 pandemic spreads with alarming speed and Job finds himself unable to come to Boston as planned. As he reluctantly tells Rachel, “My flight was canceled, and I’m having a heck of a time finding a replacement. The States are closing the borders, and India is grounding its planes.” Luckily for Rachel, her new housemates rally around her and what at first seemed like an uncomfortable situation turns into a heartwarming exploration of found family and personal growth.
In A Lot of People Live in This House, Bailey Merlin skillfully navigates the complexities of living with strangers, especially during a time of uncertainty and fear. The characters, who run the gamut in terms of gender, sexuality, personality, and profession, come together to create a supportive and loving community. Rachel’s experience of learning to normalize and respect her housemates’ differing identities is a refreshing aspect of the story. It highlights how different people can live with and learn to love each other.
Rachel’s handling of her personal trauma—both bereavement and separation due to distance/circumstance—is portrayed with authenticity and depth. As she gets to know her housemates better, she discovers that everyone has their own struggles and imperfections. The gradual and realistic development of the found family’s relationships adds depth to the narrative and renders their eventual connections more profound. Rachel even grows to love the house, which Merlin presents as another character from the outset: “She stares up at the great white house, and the great white house stares back, its many-windowed eyes framed with black shutters.”
Another strength of the novel is its realistic and touching portrayal of anxiety and the importance of allowing oneself to be loved and vulnerable. Merlin handles Rachel’s anxiety with care, gradually revealing its sources and its impacts on her life. Here, Merlin is both sympathetic and factual, meaning that people with anxiety may see their experiences reflected in Rachel’s day-to-day life while those without anxiety may learn a little more about the condition. Aside from Merlin’s depiction of health matters such as anxiety, the way in which she weaves the use of technology into the story to facilitate characters’ communication and interaction is spot-on, adding yet more realism to the novel’s depiction of modern life.
With regard to its setting—in both time and space—A Lot of People Live in This House carefully and pragmatically captures the early days and months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and beyond, evoking the feelings of uncertainty, fear, and the need for safety measures that so many people can relate to. Merlin paints a vivid picture of life during that time, from obsessively checking the myriad news updates to anxiously adjusting daily routines, highlighting both the mundane and the extraordinary changes that occurred.
A Lot of People Live in This House is a heartwarming novel that explores the concepts of love, grief, mental illness, and found family. Merlin’s storytelling is both heartfelt and humorous, striking a delicate balance that allows connection with the characters and discovery of personal experiences within the story.
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