Real Estate Obsession: Meghan Daum's House Fever

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The classic truism of real estate is that buying a house is the biggest investment you'll ever make. But as Meghan Daum's pitch-perfect memoir of real estate obsession, "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House," makes clear, the financial investments of owning a house probably pale next to the emotional investments, and can often be more ruinous.

Sketched over the story of the 30 or more residences Daum has lived in from childhood to the day she gets married, "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House" is not a real estate memoir per se. Rather it's a witty settling-down story of Daum's journey through a prolonged adolescence; life in college dorms; early days as a journalist in New York; her flight from the big city to (of all places) Lincoln, Neb.; and, finally, her arrival in Los Angeles. There, after many fits and starts, she finds the house (and man) of her dreams.

It is, as Daum writes, "the story of what happens when, for whatever reason, your identity becomes almost totally wrapped up in not who you are or how you live but in where you live."

In her often glowing writing, real estate becomes the scrim on which she and her family project a life that is "always two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves."
Daum comes to her obsession honestly: through her mother's gradual, growing need for independence from her father, whom she portrays as a cranky, eccentric composer. Growing up in Austin, Texas and then suburban New Jersey, where her parents moved to find better career opportunities for her father, Daum watches as her housewife mom struggles for identity and yearns for better things. Whether she wants a nicer home or a different lifestyle isn't clear, because Daum describes the family sport as visiting open houses, even when they are happily ensconced in a new home. What is clear is that as the marriage starts to come off its rails, the core of its dissolution is a steady drip of resentment and snobbery, a failure to take the real creative and emotional risks that finally might lead to that promised destination.

Indeed, it leads to a very different kind of real estate search altogether.

For the rest of the book, Daum tells us how this heartbreak DNA comes to dominate her own real estate history, as she escapes from one bad house (and boyfriend) to the next. No matter where she is, it's all about the next place, the next fantasy: From her parents' suppressed suburban life to a fancy college. And then to the fantasy of a writer's life on Manhattan's Upper West Side. From the Upper West Side to the fantasy farmhouse in Nebraska. From the farmhouse to the uber-hip Hollywood houses that you find in Dwell magazine.

Daum is perpetually in the grip of what she cannot own, and the houses envelop her, pushing all else -- boyfriends, friends, her writing career -- to the side, as her fixations overwhelm her. Until finally -- after all the broken ranch-houses and rancid farmhouses and puny apartments -- she finds one, the L.A. house (and guy), that can cure her of her restlessness. At least for a while.

Daum, a Los Angeles Times columnist who is also the author of the essay collection "My Misspent Youth" and the novel "The Quality of Life Report," manages to infuse her story with an unpretentious honesty that is often laugh-out-loud hilarious while plumbing our emotional real estate investments.

In doing so, she has turned what could have been be a standard "chick lit" memoir into a deeply told tale of how real estate has come to own us in its deepest, darkest, most emotional roots.
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