Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: The Outward Room

While I missed blogosphere's NYRB Classics week recently, I did manage to read an NYRB book this past week!  It is the first book I've read since August, so I was pretty thrilled to get through it.  It also was a very nice, quiet read, and I'm excited to tell you all about it!

The Outward Room by Millen Brand starts with a woman locked in a mental institution.  She has been there since her breakdown some years ago, after her beloved older brother's death.  But she is getting tired of the hospital and her life there and one day, she manages to escape.  She goes to New York, taking for herself the name Harriet Demuth (we never learn her real name), pawning her treasured ring and looking for a job.  But it's the Great Depression and no one is hiring.  Hungry and exhausted, Harriet is lucky enough to befriend John, a machine worker who takes her in and shows her true kindness.  The two learn to support and trust each other and discover the city during some of its darkest days.

It's funny that I chose this past Sunday Salon topic to focus on plot and how important plot is to a story because The Outward Room is exactly the sort of story that makes me think plot isn't so key if the writing and characters are strong.  Not much happens in the way of big, important events in this book.  It is not about overcoming The Man or fighting very hard.  It's not an over-dramatic romance. It's just a simple story about one woman struggling against depression and the man who helps her come to terms with it.  It's about two people making a meager but happy existence in the midst of the Great Depression.  It's one of the sweetest and most poignant love stories I've ever read.

In the afterword, Peter Cameron says, "Millen Brand has that rare empathetic ability to love all his characters... And so the reader comes to feel, and fear, for the characters in a way that is almost unbearably tender."  That is true.  I can't say it any better myself.  I felt so deeply for Harriet in this book, and wanted nothing more than for her to find happiness.  And I felt the same way about all the other characters, too.  Harriet's friend Anna, who wants so badly to marry a man but feels she can't because her parents are so dependent on her income.  Harriet's first landlord, George, who doesn't talk much but tells her about life in the Amazon.  Mary, the young girl who helps raise all the children in the neighborhood.  So many people whose lives become intertwined and who learn to help each other through small but significant hardships.

This is a slow book.  It didn't make my pulse quicken or my heart pound.  There were times when I got tired of Harriet just staring out the window and thinking about death.  But it's a book that is true.  Many of us have experienced the loneliness that permeates this book, and felt pure relief when someone comes out of the fog to help us come back to ourselves.  This book is about that process, and it describes it beautifully.

I received this book for free to review.


  1. This sounds really beautiful! I wanted you to know, I just added my first NYRB Classic to my TBR - Lolly Willowes! I hope to read it during next RIP season. These NYRB classics seem really nice! I hadn't had a chance to view much of them but I hope to see more in the future.

  2. Oh, this definitely sounds like a book I need to read! I haven't read many of the NYRB Classics, but there is something about the way you describe this book, that makes me think it will be a gentle and affecting read for me. I also like that it deals with a character in the throes of mental illness, which is one of the topics I most love to read about. I am off to see if I can grab a copy of this book, and wanted also to mention that I thought this review was just beautiful.

  3. I've read about many NYTRB books in the past week or so, but your review definitely piqued my interest. I am not one of those reader who always requires a rip-roaring (or even moderately paced) plot, so I think this one might be right up my alley. The fact that you found the writing so strong definitely impresses me!

  4. This sounds lovely! I hope my library has it...the one thing I don't like about my new library's search engine is that it's really difficult to search by publisher. :(

  5. The first book you've read since August! I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Sometimes the slow books are the most rewarding in the end. I'm glad you enjoyed this one since your reading time is so limited now.

  7. Anonymous11/20/2010

    You should become my personal recommender of NYRB books! :)

  8. Anonymous11/20/2010

    You poor thing with no leisure reading time! If I hadn't read a leisure book since August I would have the most horrific migraine. My brain becomes very unhappy with me if I don't read.

    This looks really interesting - I'm trying to decide which part of me is uppermost, the "loves mental illness stories" part or the "hates Great Depression stories" part...

  9. This sounds like a great book. I'm glad to hear this was the first book you've read since August. I have to add this to my TBR pile.

  10. Amanda- Yay for you! I will have to look that one up. I haven't heard anything about it.

    Zibilee- Yes, it is definitely a gentle read, and while it can be slow, I found it very rewarding. And thank you for the compliment on the review!

    Steph- Yes, I really like a quiet read sometimes, and this seemed to be the right book at the right time for me. I hope you find it much the same!

    Eva- Oh, I hate when that's the case! I LOVE search by publisher.

    Tracy- I'm glad, too :-)

    Kathleen- Yes, I agree. Sometimes it's exhausting to read a very fast-paced book, isn't it?

    Iris- I would be THRILLED to take on that role!

    Jenny- Haha, I can see how that would be a conundrum. I don't think it was a HUGELY "Great Depression" era book. It was more just talking about how the era affected the people in small ways. But definitely takes place during that period and thus very influenced by it.

    Vasilly- Yes, I was pretty thrilled to finish a book! I am hoping to finish another one next week over Thanksgiving, but we'll see...

  11. Thanks for a really good review!!

  12. Sounds like a wonderful book to bring you back into reading. Sometimes you don't need a big plot or bunches of excitement when you have real characters living their authentic lives. Wonderful, thoughtful review.

  13. You've made this book sound dreamy. I wasn't sure if this would be for me because unlike jenny I'm not a fan of stories in mental institutions, but your description of the quietness of the story is so lovely. I really like that quote from the afterward too. How could anyone turn away from a book that sounds so tender?

    And hurray for reading a book! It's so hard when pleasure reading has to go out the window.

  14. Willa- Aw, thanks for the compliment!

    Jenners- Yes, you're absolutely right. It was the right book for the occasion.

    JOdie- I love the quote from the afterword, too! From what it said, this book was a huge hit in its day, too, but the author never matched its success and so kind of faded into obscurity. Sad.

  15. Oh jeez, look at that. First book you read since August and it's an instant "YES!" on the old TBR. It's probably good for me you're not reading as much. ;) I'm really glad you enjoyed this, and seriously, I do hope you get some more leisure reading time soon!


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