Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum

“It’s like having a long, glorious, no-holds-barred conversation with your smartest, funniest friend about all the juicy topics: real estate, class envy, bad dates, family identity, and the discrepancies between the lives we aspire to and the lives we lead. I’m awed by Daum’s honesty and talent.”—Curtis Sittenfeld

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From the acclaimed author and columnist: a laugh-out-loud journey into the world of real estate—the true story of one woman’s “imperfect life lived among imperfect houses” and her quest for the four perfect walls to call home.

After an itinerant suburban childhood and countless moves as a grown-up—from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska; from the Midwest to the West Coast and back—Meghan Daum was living in Los Angeles, single and in her mid-thirties, and devoting obscene amounts of time not to her writing career or her dating life but to the pursuit of property: scouring Craigslist, visiting open houses, fantasizing about finding the right place for the right price. Finally, near the height of the real estate bubble, she succumbed, depleting her life’s savings to buy a 900-square-foot bungalow, with a garage that “bore a close resemblance to the ruins of Pompeii” and plumbing that “dated back to the Coolidge administration.”

From her mother’s decorating manias to her own “hidden room” dreams, Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole. With delicious wit and a keen eye for the absurd, she has given us a pitch-perfect, irresistible tale of playing a lifelong game of house.

Meghan Daum is the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth and the novel The Quality of Life Report, a New York Times Notable Book. Her column on political, cultural, and social affairs appears weekly in the Los Angeles Times and is distributed nationally through the McClatchy news service. She has contributed to public radio’s Morning Edition, Marketplace, and This American Life, and has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

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From our Q&A with the author:

Q: In LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE, you detail your lifelong obsession with real estate and your quest for a place to call home. What does “home” mean to you? How has that meaning evolved over the years?

A: Asking what “home” means is like asking what “love” means. And, as I say in the book I have a pet peeve about people referring to houses as homes, especially if they’re talking in terms of real estate or about properties as physical, purchasable entities. “I just bought a new home,” someone will say. Really? What does that mean? You bought a feeling, a mélange of smells, a history? No, you bought a house! In my mind, you buy a house but you make a home.

So I guess for me the best way to talk about “home” is to talk about the elements of your surroundings that you make—your friends, your choices, your plans, and, yes, decisions about cities and neighborhoods and floors and furniture and window treatments. In terms of how this has evolved for me over the years, I think it correlated pretty closely with my sense of myself as an adult versus a non-adult. Like most children (most lucky children anyway) my earliest definition of home was, of course, the place where my parents were and my room was and where I ate dinner most nights. Later, when I left for college, I entered a pretty aimless period where I was obsessed with “having my own place” but wasn’t quite at a stage where that could happen in any kind of authentic way (a fancy way of saying I moved dorm rooms constantly and eventually rigged things up so I was basically living in New York City and going to college (in upstate New York) at the same time; I thought I was super cool and artsy and “having it all.” In fact, I was a bit of a caricature of the brooding co-ed with bohemian ambitions and suburban roots, plus I was squandering my education, but that’s another matter. In my 20s, I genuinely did live full-time in New York City, where, like many people, I soaked up the various ecstasies and discontents of the place so fully that it almost becomes part of your blood type. In my 30s, I’m embarrassed to say, I was extremely attached to certain pieces of antique furniture that I dragged from place to place and to certain interior decorating concepts that I tried to implement wherever I went. But I did live in some fantastic, beautiful places in my 30s. I lived on the Nebraska prairie and in the Santa Monica Mountains. I lived near the beach, near the Hollywood sign, and near a truck stop. And several beaux-arts lamps came with me every step of the way—not to mention my 85-pound sheepdog.

Over a six-month period from late last year to early this year, I got married, lost my mother, turned 40, and decided to sell the house I bought (to great personal fanfare) six years ago. As a result I’m thinking a lot about ways to redefine “home.” I’d like to reach a point where “home” will simply be the place that my husband and I (and the dog, of course) happen to be at any given time. I’d like to become evolved enough where the thought of living without hardwood floors doesn’t make me want to jump out of my skin. But that might represent an unattainable level of enlightenment.

Q: In your book you say, “I wanted to live on another block, in another part of town, in New York, in Paris, on the moon.” Why the constant desire to move around?

A: The open houses my parents took me to as a child probably were a factor. We didn’t do sports or play games or relax much on weekends, but my mother was always up for open houses and, moreover, the idea of moving to a new house. I definitely inherited my restlessness from her. I’ve also found that moving functions as something of a stimulant for me. During the process of moving out of an old place and getting settled in a new place I find I become more energetic, more excited about my surroundings and more motivated about my life trajectory. And being in a new place just naturally makes you more observant. It’s like I can feel a set of antennas rising from my skull as I pull into a new town or neighborhood. And that’s a rush; I can’t deny it.

This book is dedicated to my mother, who died shortly after I finished it and who is without a doubt the biggest influence in my life in terms of houses. We weren’t exactly close in a conventional motherdaughter way, but we had a very deep bond when it came to our love of real estate. The first chapter, which talks about the houses of my early life, is very much about the way she channeled so much of her creativity and ambitions and even frustrations through the houses we lived in. She had a remarkable ability to create a beautiful interior world on little or no money (this is something I aspire to but haven’t yet mastered.) When my mother finally emancipated herself from a particularly unworkable set of family dynamics (which is a fancy way of saying “when she left my father”) she did so not by divorcing him or cutting off much contact but by simply renting her own house. And then there was a house after that and a house after that and a Manhattan apartment after that. And they were all pretty magnificent.

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