The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng was high on my list after all the praise. Honestly, which of course all my reviews are, it was hard for me to get into. I'm not sure if it was because I read at Thanksgiving when my mind was being pulled into many different direction OR if it just wasn't for me. Bummed because I had high hopes.
Thank you for the opportunity to review this new novel.
I'm very sorry to say that I was not a fan at all. I had a hard time getting into the story and after a while I was bored. I started to skim and eventually put it down. I'm sure other will love it since It has gotten so many rave reviews.
This is the Malaysian history I wish I knew! Admittedly I don't know much about W. Somerset Maugham. There's a beauty and lushness in the language here.
✨ Review ✨ The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng
What I loved
⭕️ the multiple timelines of this historical fiction story
⭕️ how these multiple timelines were nestled into layers of storytelling
⭕️ the settings of the book
⭕️ the complicated ways that people find love in and out of marriage
⭕️ the parallels to history (e.g. Ethel's story)
What I didn't love
⭕️ I don't know a lot about Somerset Meagher's writing and so the allusions / parallels to that went over my head
⭕️ the racial dynamics were complicated and hard to sort through without more historical knowledge about this place and time
Genre: historical fiction 1910s/1920s / literary fiction
Pub Date: 2023
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and #netgalley for the gifted advanced copy/ies of this book!
This is engrossing literate story telling in top form. A memorable mix of fictional characters with real characters as W. Somerset Maugham.
The House of Doors” by Tan Twan Eng takes place in Malaysia in the 1920s. The protagonist is expatriate Lesley Hamlyn who, together with her husband Robert, hosts W. Somerset Maughm for some months. Lesley, in an increasingly difficult marriage, finds herself talking intimately with “Willie”, knowing he has a penchant for putting the people he meets into his stories. She tells him about her relationship with the Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen and her friend’s murder trial. The end result is these stories fueled Maughm’s “The Letter” (about the murder trial). It’s been many years since I’ve read W. Somerset Maughm, but I’m about to go dust off the books in my shelf and reread them. Thank you NetGalley for an ARC of this fabulous book.
Reading this story set in a time over 100 years ago, in governments long gone, with social systems no longer present, it amazes me to still feel the echoes, recognize and long after the beauties and rarities left behind. Here we have an example of these in the stories told by an author of those days - adeptly gathered like ripe fruit by Tan Twan Eng and reimagined and extended. The House of Doors is one of those - featuring a version of W Somerset Maugham himself, and a few of his stories from The Casuarina Tree.
Tan Twan Eng skillfully picks up the trail, and widens it, showing readers a deeper view, one that explains (a little) the blindspot of white society - self-centeredness, no room for 'others,' through characters such as Lesley as they watch consequences crash on all levels in Penang, as Japan and China fight for dominance around the people who've always lived there no matter what they were called, by whoever had settled in amongst them. The story is haunting, showing much of what we miss as humans even during times we are closest to history-changing events (as ever, by whoever is doing the writing/record-keeping).
One of the aspects I most enjoyed was the speed with which I connected with the characters. . .all of them in some way. . .Lesley and her intentional blinders with Robert, Willie and his midnight swim, Arthur and his house of doors (oh, I'd love to see that!), and Sun Wen with his best and brightest love - the one that will crush him in the end. . .
I will be thinking of this story for a long time. . .and have already started reading The Casuarina Tree.
*A sincere thank you to Tan Twan Eng, Bloomsbury USA, and NetGalley for an ARC to read and independently review.* #TheHouseofDoors #NetGalley
An immersive window into Penang in the early 1900s and the life of Somerset Maugham. Recommend reading "The Letter," the final story in his collection The Casuarina Tree or watching the movie adaptation prior to reading The House of Doors.
After seeing all of the Booker hype around this book, I was excited to read it. The summary sounded really interesting, but I found it to just be okay. The story was sort of dull and dragged on a bit, The writing is lovely, but I just needed something more exciting to be happening.
This was hauntingly beautiful. Told in alternate timelines and viewpoints, the reader is introduced to Lesley and her husband Robert who live in Penang in 1921. Robert’s old friend Willie Maugham, an author, comes to visit them with his secretary/lover, Gerald. What follows is a tale of love and betrayal amidst the beauty and heat of Asia. Willie is drawn to Lesley and her stories, trying to find out if there is more to her and her marriage to Robert than meets the eye.
Lesley Hamlyn and her husband Robert have a lush life in 1921 Malaysia. The couple welcomes notable writer W. Somerset Maugham and his secretary (and secret lover) Gerald for an extended stay. But Maugham is quietly searching for creative inspiration to turn around his declining career, and he finds it in Lesley’s connection to former Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen.
A richly detailed, immersive historical fiction set around real people, this book asks what it means to trust someone with your story. The prose is undoubtedly beautiful and the perspective on art and the imperfection of artists is interesting. There's some kind of heart or passion missing here in my opinion, but still certainly worth reading!
Thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA for the ARC in exchange for my honest review. I was drawn to this book as it interwove the story of W. Somerset Maugham, called Willie, into a story along with Lesley and her husband Robert who are living at Cassowary House in Penang. The story wasn't as much about Willie although he is a part of the story but more about the colonialism, the colonizers living with the natives, a woman's role and her limitations in early 1900s, and relationships and their secrets that lead to consequences. I did enjoy learning about a different part of the world through the eyes of Lesley, a woman born in Asia but culturally English. A lot of the book has to do with relationships and infidelities. Willie has a secretary, Gerald, but it's obvious to everyone that they are in a relationship even though Willie has a wife and family back in England. Lesley also hears from her brother that her husband Robert is having an affair. It's hard for her to believe but when she uncovers the truth she is shocked. A good half of the book deals with Lesley's friend Edith who kills a man. There is talk that they were having an affair but Edith claims that she was raped by the man and ended up killing him. There is a trial and, when all the secrets come out, the real truth is shocking. This story is told in flashbacks to fill in the specifics to conversations in the present. Overall, it was an interesting read.
Very well written about Somerset Maugham visits an unhappy couple. There are revolutionaries, homosexuality, secrets - it is about so much and so well written
When I read The Garden of Evening Mists many years ago, I felt bewitched by the language, setting, plot, characters. The House of Doors gave me the same feeling. I didn’t want it to end but I had to find out the truth of the various plots. Set mainly in Penang, Eng relates the story of Lesley and Robert, a well-to-do couple, and their visitor Somerset Maugham, aka Willie. Willie arrives in 1921 and is a sharp observer, always looking for fodder for his stories. Lesley’s stories intrigue him, her involvement with the revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the murder trial of her close friend Edith, romances and life, in general, in Penang, in 1910. Eng begins his wonderful novel in South Africa in 1947. Robert has died and she receives a parcel.
Tan Twan Eng's writing is just sublime. I've never read anything by W. Somerset Maugham but the beautiful storytelling drew me in and the mixture of fact and fiction used to explain the mystery kept me enthralled. I can see what it was on the Booker Prize list.
Thanks to Bloomsbury for the copy to review.
Robert and Lesley are visited by Robert’s old friend William Somerset Maugham. Maugham’s gentle probing into the lives of the residents of Penang opens up a story encompassing love, loyalty, colonialism, revolution adultery, hidden homosexuality and a writer’s inspiration.
For a change, the blurb for this book describes it very accurately. However, the blurb does not convey how beautifully written and atmospheric this book is.
This is the third book that I have read by this author and he is consistently excellent. While his ability to describe a place and make you feel it is compelling, he is equally good at exploring characters. Unfortunately, I have now read all of his novels. I wish there were more.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher
I love a good queer litfic novel, and while this one is a bit more historical than i usually prefer, it was beautifully written and had an interesting murder/legal subplot. the story was told in a very engaging way between two timelines and i can’t wait to check out more from Eng
Not a terrible book but a slow read. The historical setting and topic was interesting. Overall I just couldn't get into the book.
I was very excited to read The House of Doors, being Malaysian (though now living the diaspora). Tan did not disappoint in any way. I was profoundly moved; the setting of the novel, in high colonial era Penang, evoked a sense of lost history for me, being so far from Malaysia, and culturally divorced from all that home invokes, but I also suffered for the characters and felt the grief of their romantic losses.
This novel is a romantic anti-romance, the kind of romantic novel that mimics tragic, realistic romance in life, with all the attendant unhappy endings and disappoints, guilt and regret, nostalgia and memory that romance actually delivers.
There are two intertwined stories here, that of Lesley Hamlyn, a middle aged British woman living in Penang with her lawyer husband, and “Willie” Somerset Maugham, the novelist who comes to stay with them for a short holiday (which turns into a research and writing expedition). They are products of their British Colonial culture; this is the 1920s, the peak of British rule in Malaya, and they represent the elite class that enjoys all Asia has to offer.
Lesley and Willie form an unusual friendship, and in doing so, the stories of their respective romances is unveiled and threatens both of them and their place in society. Love brings both of them pain and escape; traps them and offers them a way out.
Tan tackles tough subjects: queerness, interracial romance, sexuality and sex, gendered expectations — all things the British were (are?) notorious for suppressing at home and abroad. Tan does this with great skill; the writing is gorgeous. A particular ocean scene utterly devastated me; I was as submerged as the characters in it.
This is a book I will need for my personal library.
I’ve wanted to read Tan Twan Eng’s works for years, ever since a few bookish friends of mine read both his previous award-winning novels and kept recommending them to me. While I do have both of those novels on my TBR (as well as physical copies sitting on my shelf), I keep falling into the “too many books, too little time” trap and of course, in the end, I wasn’t able to get to them (someday though, I am determined that I will get to all the books I’ve been meaning to get to!). Anyway, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise then that when I heard Tan would have a new book out this year, I jumped at the chance to grab a copy, and while I was hoping to have read this one last month before it was actually released, getting to it now is better late than never.
One of the things I’ve heard that Tan is known for is the beautiful, lyrical prose that he utilizes to tell his stories. While yes, there was definitely quite a bit of beautiful writing in this newest novel, it actually didn’t permeate the entire story, at least it didn’t feel so to me. I felt that some parts — especially those related to the Proudlock murder trial — were written in a simpler, more straightforward style that seemed to be a little bit at odds with the more descriptive and elegant prose in other parts. But then I later read in an article that with the trial segments, Tan was trying to hew as close to the real life unfolding of the event as possible, in which case, the more restrained, straightforward writing made sense.
This is actually one of those books where there technically wasn’t much action in terms of plot (a large part of the book was the main protagonist Lesley Hamlyn recounting a story to famous author W. Somerset Maugham) — yet at the same time, there seemed to be several threads running through the book that felt necessary to keep track of.
Essentially, the story is a reimagining of Maugham’s trip to Penang in the 1920s and what he learns while there becoming the inspiration for one of his later books, the short story collection entitled The Casuarina Tree (which was published in 1926). While I’m familiar with Maugham as an author, since I’ve read a few of his previous works (my favorite of the ones I’ve read is The Painted Veil), I knew very little about his personal life, so I was curious how much of the way Tan depicted Maugham was fact versus fiction — which of course took me down the rabbit hole of reading up on Maugham after finishing the novel (it was fascinating to see how Tan incorporated the real life details about Maugham into the story). Also, after finishing this novel, I immediately wanted to read The Casuarina Tree to see how Maugham actually wrote the story of the Proudlock murder and trail (which itself was based on real life events) and how much of it jived with Tan’s version (I know, I’m a nerd with this kind of stuff) — though unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy yet.
One of the other threads that Tan wove into the book was a backstory involving the famous Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat Sen (who really had visited Penang at the time, but in a different year). There were also other aspects of Chinese history that Tan incorporated into the story, such as the Taiping Rebellion and the fall of the Qing dynasty. Given the dearth of English language novels in existence that talk about such lesser known aspects of Chinese history (and actually get the facts straight to boot), I definitely appreciated what Tan did here. Even though this particular story arc was secondary (the main arc was Maugham’s visit and the story Lesley told him), it was, in my opinion, the best written part of the book (and certainly my favorite out of the several threads throughout the story).
Overall, this was quite an ambitious novel with multiple threads that made the story a tad convoluted in places, but I still enjoyed it immensely. As I mentioned earlier, I definitely need to track down a copy of The Casuarina Tree so I can study the parallels — after that, I might just dig up my copies of Tan’s previous 2 novels and get started on them (time permitting, of course).
Received ARC from Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley.