I never truly understood the old adage that a good writer "shows, not tells" until I read The House on Olive Street. Robyn Carr tries to provide insight into her characters via one or two page summaries of their pasts. This keeps the reader's interest at a superficial level, and by the time interesting things actually start happening to the characters, the reader isn't invested in them.
The House on Olive Street begins with a death. Gabby Marshall is found dead in her house by two of her closest friends, Elly Fulton and Sable Tennet, who have arrived to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Gabby was a writer who was more successful at mentoring her friends' talent than capitalizing on her own. Together with Barbara Ann Vaughn and Beth Mahoney, the women had formed an ongoing writer's group
in which they critiqued each other's diverse works of fiction.
At the funeral, Elly learns that Gabby had a special request of her. In a letter, Gabby explained that she wished Elly to live in her house and serve as her literary executor. As Elly does so, she realizes that Gabby had written a draft of a novel that was based on her long-term affair with a married international photojournalist. Elly has a captive audience for the novel, as gradually Sable, Barbara Ann and Beth escape from their life crises and find sanctuary at the house on Olive Street. But this "halfway house for insane women" can't remain open indefinitely, and each of the women must find the strength to grieve for Gabby and resolve their problems.
This quick plot summary makes the book sound a great deal more interesting than it really is. The problem is that each character is given a complex history or problem, and this is where Robyn Carr "tells" where she should have "shown." For example, Sable writes glamorous women's fiction, but she has a hidden past that is abruptly revealed by a tabloid journalist. Her entire secret former life is relayed in a few pages by Sable to her new lover. Elly is a crotchety spinster and a former alcoholic who is carrying on a secret love affair with a man considered "beneath her" by most people. But the interesting parts, such as her victory over the bottle and the start of her affair, are again related quickly and sketchily. Even Gabby's story is poorly executed, as a surprise visitor to the house neatly wraps up all of the hanging plot threads in another miracle summary. It's as if Robyn Carr wanted to tell too many stories and ran out of space, so she did a "Readers' Digest" version of the plot. In the second half of the book, when the women are living and working together to solve their current problems and honor their friend, things become more interesting, but it is too late to hook the reader.
The novel has a few redeeming virtues. The discussions among the four women are bitchy and funny (although the author's refusal to identify who is speaking can be confusing). And the best story of the five, Barbara Ann's, actually elicited quite a few chuckles from me. Barbara Ann has the misfortune to live with a loving husband and four loving young adult sons who are complete and utter lazy slobs. When she
finally reaches the breaking point (I think the lawn mower motor in her bedroom is the last straw), she moves in with the other women. The men go to great and humorous lengths to win her back.
I would have probably enjoyed a book that did a good job of portraying Barbara Ann's story, instead of one that unsuccessfully tries to cram five busy stories into one volume. Readers who have an affinity for any and all "female bonding" stories may look more favorably on this novel. But I advise most readers to walk on by The House on Olive Street.