QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
“This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need” (p. 8).
Alba Ashby isn’t quite sure how she wound up at the end of Hope Street. Intellectually, the nineteen–year–old Cambridge student is brilliant beyond her years, but emotionally, she’s always lived “in a tiny box with a tight lid” (p. 1). Then, in the wake of an unimaginable betrayal Alba, paralyzed by shame and heartbreak, wanders the streets of the city and finds herself in front of a mysterious mansion. Enchanted by a song from her childhood, Alba impulsively and uncharacteristically, rings the bell.
Peggy Abbott is not surprised to see Alba on her doorstep. The spry and sparky eighty–two– year–old has spent her life opening her door to women whom she’s never met, but whose arrival she always anticipates. Even in the grip of despair, Alba senses the magic that surrounds both Peggy and the house. “It is, quite clearly, alive” (p. 3).
Warmed by a cup of Peggy’s rich hot chocolate, Alba notices that the walls of the house are “covered with endless rows of photographs” (p. 5). Peggy explains that each of the women pictured once visited the house, including Florence Nightingale and George Eliot, two of the talking portraits that first catch Alba’s eye. Now Alba—like hundreds before her—has been brought to the house so that she might heal and begin life anew. Peggy and the house will help her; the only requirement is that she cannot stay longer than ninety–nine nights.
Alba soon meets her two housemates, Carmen, a sultry Portuguese singer, and Greer, a stunning red–haired actress. At first, it’s difficult for Alba to see why either one would need sanctuary since they both exude a confidence that the shy and inexperienced Alba has never known. But, gifted with a special sight, Alba begins to sense the secrets they are hiding: “as she stares, Alba starts to see something else. The woman is scared, wearing her self–confidence like perfume: a heavy, seductive scent to distract onlookers from the broken, blackened pieces of herself she wants no one else to see.” (p.17)
The women are kind to Alba, but—despite their outward appearances—each is preoccupied by her own troubles. Carmen is haunted by her abusive husband, while Greer fears the prospect of a lonely, loveless future. Even Peggy, distracted by the belief that she will soon die, is torn between the need to find another woman to take over as the home’s caretaker and her desire to live her remaining days with her lover, Harry.
Fortunately, Alba is accustomed to finding her own way. Disdained by her three older siblings and abandoned by her father, Alba’s only childhood companion was her mentally unstable mother. But besides providing Alba with books and encouraging notes, Peggy’s house gives Alba a friend—albeit one no one else can see—Stella, a ghost. And when Alba’s life is touched by real tragedy, only Stella can give her the strength she needs to transform her life.
The House at the End of Hope Street is the story of a magical house that helps women to renew their hope just when they think there is nothing left to hope for. It’s a story of second chances, forgiveness, and chocolate cake. Winsome, wise, and delightfully imagined, Menna van Praag’s debut novel promises to captivate and enchant readers looking for a little bit of magic in their lives.
ABOUT MENNA VAN PRAAG
Menna van Praag is an author, journalist, and Oxford graduate. She is also the author of the autobiographical fable Men, Money and Chocolate. She lives in Cambridge, England, with her husband and young son.
A CONVERSATION WITH MENNA VAN PRAAG
Q. Was there a real Grace Abbott? If not, what inspired you to write a story about a sanctuary for women who have run out of hope?
I love Grace; I wish she was real, but as it is she’s born out of love, desire, and imagination—inspired by several real people in my life. The story for The House at the End of Hope Street was in turn inspired by a dream I had to buy a big house and give grants to aspiring artists (writers/painters/singers/actors/etc.) to live there for one year and do nothing else but study and promote their craft. When I graduated from Oxford I waitressed full–time while writing at night, so I know how hard it is to fulfill an artistic passion while holding down a day job. Anyway, since I can’t yet afford to make that a reality I created the fantasy version first.
Q. Is there any significance to the novel’s Cambridge setting?
I live in Cambridge and love it more than any place I’ve ever been. I knew the protagonist, Alba, was a brilliant academic so it absolutely made sense she’d be studying at Cambridge University. Everything else fell into place after that. Funnily enough, though I’ve lived here for thirty–five years, I didn’t know there was a Hope Street until after I finished the book. The title was merely metaphorical so I was delighted to discover it was actually a physical place. Then something very spooky–cool happened. I’d picked the number eleven for the house, as it’s a significant number for me, then a reader told me there isn’t a number eleven on the real Hope Street in Cambridge. And as you already know if you’ve read the novel, the house in the book is invisible except to those who need it. That gave me goose bumps!
Q. Are there any elements in the novel that you think an American audience might miss?
I did have some funny moments with my editor while we were “translating” the novel from English into American. She wasn’t sure what a “council estate” was. The closest thing I could think of was “the projects” but that wouldn’t work for the book at all, so I had to cut it. Similarly, Albert was compulsively clothed in tatty jumpers, but that word has a different meaning in American too, so now he wears cardigans. Our education system is quite different as well, though I tried my best to explain it without being overly expositional. In terms of describing Cambridge, I hope my writing has done our beautiful town justice.
Q. How did you come to create Alba, Greer, and Carmen? Do you feel that their dilemmas are representative of those faced by most women today?
Alba is the character most like myself, especially when I was her age—a timid, bookish type who wants to connect to other people but finds it hard. I then created characters to compliment her, so I’d have a variety of women as different as they could possibly be. In earlier drafts there were many more women in the house, one from each generation, which I loved, but their plots were more superficial so, very reluctantly—following a suggestion from my agents—I cut most of them out and just focused on Alba, Greer, Carmen, and Peggy. Yes, I do feel their difficulties and dilemmas: learning to love themselves, not losing their identities while in a relationship, following their dreams, falling in love, having a family, are reflective of those faced by many women today, yesterday, and probably tomorrow, too!
Q. Each of your novel’s main characters—including Peggy herself—is unable to admit what she truly wants out of life. Do you think it’s more difficult for women than men to see and accept their dreams?
I can’t speak in generalities but from my own experience and those of my friends, I would say it’s perhaps more difficult for women to realize their dreams—they can lose themselves in relationships instead, especially when young—and accept and act on them, especially once they have a family. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young and purposefully waited to have a child until after I was published. I knew I’d find it too hard to be an aspiring writer and a mother. It still isn’t easy, but my husband is very supportive so I’m thankful that it’s not impossible.
Q. Peggy has a serious sweet tooth, especially when it comes to chocolate. This is a thread that seems to run through all of your books. Does chocolate play a crucial role in your own life?
I am a self–confessed chocoholic. A day does not pass when I don’t eat some (okay, quite a lot) of the sweet stuff, along with a slice of cake if I’m lucky, often accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate. I’m also quite particular about the quality of the chocolate I consume, preferring the expensive sort with high cocoa content. Fortunately, my husband is a brilliant chef and always happy to create delicious cakes, often after midnight . . .
Q. On your website, you posted a video explaining how you’d wanted to be a writer ever since you could remember, but had little success until you self–published your first book. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? Is being a writer as fulfilling as you imagined?
I adore writing. No matter if I’d never been published I would have written for the rest of my life. I love words. I love sentences so beautiful and true they take my breath away. Getting paid to write is heaven and I’m very grateful for it. But you can’t count on that, it can’t be the reason you write. Allow me to quote some of the women in Hope Street:
“I write because I cannot NOT write.” ? Charlotte Brontë “I write because I’ve always written, can’t stop. I am a writing animal. The way a silk worm is a silk–producing animal.” ? Doris Lessing
“I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.” ? Virginia Woolf
“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.” ? Sylvia Plath
Now, if you feel the same way about writing then I believe it’s very likely you also have some innate talent for it. You may, and probably will, have to study your craft for many years before being published but if you write simply because you must, then I suggest you shouldn’t give up trying to get published until you succeed.
Q. Who are your main literary influences?
I’m not sure I can distinguish between direct literary influences and simply authors I love to read. I suspect that every book I’ve ever read and loved has dug its way into my subconscious and influenced my writing, much as I may want to claim it hasn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, magical realism is my favorite genre. I’ve long been in love with everything ever written by Alice Hoffman. Other favorite magical realism authors include: Isabelle Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen, and Barbara O’Neal. Favorite authors in general include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, and Sue Monk Kidd.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished editing my second novel, tentatively titled The Dress Shop of Dreams. It’s the story of a young scientist who falls in love with a bookshop owner, a man with a magical voice. She’s mourning the loss of her parents and needs the help of her grandmother, the seamstress who creates enchanted dresses that transform women’s lives, to learn how to love. She also needs to solve the mystery of her parents’ deaths. Just as I’d love to live in The House at the End of Hope Street, I’d also love to visit The Dress Shop of Dreams. As I wrote about the women who visit the shop:
These are the women who aren’t really looking for the perfect cocktail dress, the jeans that’ll lengthen their legs or the skirt that will slim their silhouette. No, these women are looking for much more than that; they are looking for a lost piece of themselves.
They will find it with the help of a magnificent blue silk ball gown or a dark red tea dress. And what could be more wonderful than that?!