The Little House
I’m familiar with some of Philippa Gregory’s historicals, but I recently discovered she’s written a psychological thriller. The Little House has the sort of title which suggests still waters that run deep, so I gave it a try. Most of the book held my attention, but the ending leaves me reluctant to recommend it.
Ruth and Patrick are an up-and-coming married couple with only one cloud on the horizon as far as Ruth is concerned. Patrick’s parents, Elizabeth and Frederick, have never cut the umbilical cord, let alone the apron strings, and Ruth is reminded of this each time they make the dutiful Sunday pilgrimage to the in-laws’ house in the country. An American-born orphan, she always feels as though Elizabeth and Frederick put up with her so they’ll have access to their son.
Then she loses her job. The in-laws suggest she use this time to have a baby. Ruth is ambivalent, but Patrick has sex with her when she’s too tipsy to use protection and she conceives. They share the happy surprise with the in-laws, who have an equally happy surprise – they’ve bought a nearby cottage for Ruth and Patrick to fix up and move into. Ruth would rather not live far out in the countryside, but she’s outvoted three to one. After the birth, and in the grip of post-natal depression, Ruth reacts to the stifling loneliness of her new existence by going out for a drink with a former co-worker (who’s male—another black mark against her), but the booze reacts badly with her anti-depressants.
So Elizabeth has Ruth committed for mental instability. That way, Elizabeth can raise her grandson, Patrick can stay with the three of them, and they’ll all live happily ever after.
The setup is good, with the claustrophobia and isolation of the cottage built steadily. Ruth is a sad panda at first, since everything she touches goes wrong, but I was on her side because of the in-laws from hell. Any mistake she makes is seized upon as evidence of her mental problems or moral failings. Of course, when Patrick brings a woman to his parents’ home for supper while Ruth is gone… well, you can’t expect a young man to be chained to a sick wife for ever, can you?
But when Ruth is in the treatment facility, the friends she makes point out that if she’s hoping Elizabeth and Frederick will be her new mom and dad if she just does everything right, she’s shopping at the wrong store. She returns home, determined to change things.
Here, unfortunately, is where the book starts to drag and then goes downhill. I wanted to see Ruth do something heroic or clever to better her situation, but Patrick’s parents wield far too much power. Frederick lines up a lawyer, while Elizabeth insinuates herself into Ruth’s life to help take care of the baby. There are even a couple of incidents where Ruth can’t be sure if there’s been an honest mistake or if Elizabeth is gaslighting her.
Without giving away spoilers, at the end, Ruth doesn’t have to worry about her child being taken from her or being committed again. However, her method of accomplishing this didn’t make for a satisfying ending at all, and I felt the Ruth at the end of the story was a Stepford-esque caricature. It was as though Ms. Gregory realized the novel had to be wrapped up, introduced a Chekhov’s gun, and wrapped Ruth’s finger around the trigger. I was also disappointed in the story’s handling of Patrick. Actually, by then I didn’t like any of the characters and was reading out of a morbid curiosity.
The Little House may work for readers who enjoy psychological thrillers with well-realized settings, but are prepared for an ending that feels hurried at best and wildly unrealistic at worst. There are things to like about the book, but not enough of them to earn a recommendation.