The History of Us

By Leah Stewart

(Touchstone, $24.99, 367 pages)

Who is this author?

Leah Stewart, whose previous novels are “Husband and Wife,” “The Myth of You and Me” and “Body of a Girl,” lives with her family in Cincinnati, where she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati. But she’s not an Ohio native: she was born at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, where her father was stationed, and later lived in New Mexico, where she went to high school, as well as in Virginia, Idaho, England, Kansas, and Virginia again. She earned degrees at Vanderbilt and the University of Michigan and worked at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can learn more about her at .

What is this book about?

What’s that old line about man making plans and God laughing? Eloise Hempl thought her life was set on a promising path: at 28, she’s successfully pursuing an academic career at Harvard when she gets one of those life-changing phone calls. Her sister and brother-in-law have died in an accident, her mother (who is a difficult woman even when times are good) cannot cope and Eloise must drop everything to return to Cincinnati to raise her orphaned nieces and nephew in the sprawling family home. Unselfishly, she does, but as the three kids grow up – with problems and plans of their own – Eloise longs to refocus her life on her own needs. That’s understandable, but not easy, as Stewart shows in “The History of Us.”

Why you’ll like it:

Stewart has the knack for creating unusual yet believable characters and to enmesh them in circumstances that readers can readily understand. She gets the way family members can be loving and supporting one moment and selfish and frustrating the next and how difficult it can be for the person who finds herself in the center of it all to do some necessary taking after a lifetime of giving.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal: “Stewart …has a knack for introducing characters in need of mending: they are not broken, just disjointed, needy, and, at times, without emotional support. Eloise Hempel is the de facto mother to three twenty-something siblings, having become their primary caregiver after their parents were killed in a car accident. Always planning to put her life back on track as a Harvard professor, Eloise has found herself rooted in Cincinnati for 20 years as she parented her sister’s children to adulthood. There’s Josh, her kind nephew, something of a negotiator and very much the middle child, a young man who has recently tossed away a life in music. The youngest, Claire, is a wispy, wily ballet dancer, and sensitive Theodora, the eldest, is nearly as sensible and strong as Eloise. Inextricably linked together, the three also have strong ties to their childhood home. Looking toward future domestic arrangements, Eloise slowly hedges toward momentous decisions, while the siblings dabble in their own decision making, sometimes with disastrous results. VERDICT Domestic fiction fans favoring strong, intelligent characters will be intrigued by Stewart’s introspective examination of a family.”

Kirkus Reviews says: A professor who raised her late sister’s three children grapples with the long-term consequences. … Seventeen years later, the makeshift family is at a turning point. In less-than-free-wheeling Cincinnati, Eloise is loath to come out as a lesbian, although her lover is pressuring her for a commitment. She’s had to settle for a less prestigious position at a local college in order to raise her nephew and nieces in their preferred domicile, Francine’s large, crumbling Cincinnati home. (The narcissistic oldster has long since departed for Sewanee, where she makes trouble from a distance.) ….Francine has complicated matters by reneging on her promise to sign the house over to Eloise. Now, the Machiavellian matriarch insists that she’ll give it to whoever marries first. This hook is not as gimmicky as it seems. Rather, it forces Eloise and her charges to fully examine their connection to each other and to the world. With a playwright’s precise, sometimes excoriating dialogue and an insightful novelist’s judicious use of interior monologue, Stewart crafts a tearful yet unsentimental family coming-of-age story.

“A sprawling novel with some of the off-kilter charm of Anne Tyler’s work, The History of Us glows with affection for its wounded,  familiar characters,” says the Boston Globe.

“Touching drama . . . Faced with urgent choices, Eloise and the grown kids react with varying degrees of wisdom and pigheadedness, but as Stewart tenderly demonstrates, they remain – for better or worse – a family,” says  People.

When is it available?

You can borrow it now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.