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Lust After 'That House' (And That One And That One)

Meghan Daum made a name for herself with her essay, "My Misspent Youth," which appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 and later became the title of her first book. With noteworthy candor, self-deprecation and wit, she described how student loans, compounded with her New York City lifestyle -- and barely offset by income from freelance writing and temp jobs -- had landed her $80,000 in debt. This led to the radical decision to bail out of Manhattan and move to Lincoln, Neb., of all places.

Daum covered some of that same ground in her first novel, The Quality of Life Report, from 2003, and she re-treads parts of it again in her first new book in seven years. In Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, Daum peers at her life through the windows of the many abodes she's occupied -- suburban ranch houses, dorm rooms, cluttered sublets, cramped Upper West Side apartments, decrepit farmhouses and, finally, the modest Los Angeles bungalow to which she lost her homeowner virginity at 34. They're all here, along with countless places she's craved but couldn't afford. This is a book about how Daum's house lust turned her into a self-proclaimed house slut -- 18 residences in the first 15 years after she left her parents' Ridgewood, N.J., home for Vassar College.

Daum avers that before the housing bubble went splat in 2008, the country was as obsessed with real estate as she was, "as though the nation's major religions had coalesced into a single doctrine and formed a cult of real estate." Those who share her obsession will love Daum's frank specificity about figures: The $450,000 purchase price for the dilapidated 900-square-foot bungalow she bought in Echo Park near the height of the market in 2004 required a $333,701 mortgage, with monthly payments of $2,054. Equally appealing, she's the first to puncture her own pretensions: Writing about her clashing fantasies, urban pundit versus prairie pioneer, she concludes, "You cannot be Dorothy Parker and also Willa Cather."

Shelter is hopelessly tangled up with self-definition for Daum. This unfortunately leads to pages of overwrought, tedious analysis, complete with real estate dreams and histrionic breakdowns over bad decisions and the ones that got away. Nesters content to live in the same home for decades and impervious to the charms of HGTV and the Multiple Listing Service website may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Daum is never afraid to coin a phrase to suit her needs, including "collarbony" thin, or "nohabitation" to define "the exhausting volley between 'my place or yours' " that she and the journalist she finally married last fall kept up for years. But despite her lively prose, reading Life Would Be Perfect is like sitting next to an animated dinner partner who won't get off the subject of his latest knee surgery. Daum's incisive flair is put to better use in her weekly Los Angeles Times columns about the intersection of personal, political and cultural affairs.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.