House Arrest (2011, Red Hen Press) is a truly original and compelling novel, full of courage and complexity. First-time author Ellen Meeropol gives us a diverse cast of sensitive characters with rich, storied lives that are unfurled slowly, almost delicately, as the novel progresses.
Emily Klein, an agency nurse in Springfield, Massachusetts, provides care to home-bound patients, who help fill the painful void left by Emily’s parents. When the novel opens, Emily has been assigned a new patient, Pippa Glenning, a young runaway from the South in her second pregnancy who is under house arrest, awaiting trial for the tragic and mysterious death of her first baby. Pippa is the youngest member of the House of Isis, a spiritual family group that worships the goddess Isis.
Despite their differences, Pippa and Emily reluctantly become friends, and Pippa dares to ask Emily for help. Because she is pregnant, it is Pippa’s responsibility to dance in an upcoming ritual – the same ritual during which, one year earlier, Pippa’s first child accidentally died. But the house arrest monitor makes Pippa’s participation in this midnight ritual impossible. While Pippa is beginning to question the ties of the House of Isis family group, which is breaking down under the strain of the recent tragedy, she is nonetheless dedicated to her goddess, Isis, and determined to dance. Will Emily help Pippa, risking her own job in the process?
Meeropol is a skilled, subtle writer. Each of her characters, even minor ones like Gina, Emily’s friend and co-worker, and Sam, the ex-husband of Emily’s cousin and roommate, is so well-drawn, so human, they come to life vividly on the page. The home-care visits and Emily’s interactions with her patients sing with authenticity.
Meeropol describes the various settings of the story in a masterful way. From the snowy rhododendron grove where the Isis ritual is held to Emily’s bleak childhood home in Maine, rich sensory detail conveys haunting emotions, in language that manages to be both elegant and economical.
Political intrigue is woven in delicious bits throughout the story: the mystery of Emily’s parents and her estrangement from her family in Maine, why Pippa left her family in Georgia, the prejudice and violence against the House of Isis. But the story is not so much a political thriller as a tale about loneliness, challenging notions of family and friendship and belief. The struggles of Emily and Pippa, and what they mean in the modern world, will stay with you long after the final page.
Read my interview with Ellen Meeropol.