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The Sea House    by Esther Freud order for
Sea House
by Esther Freud
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

London born author Esther Freud (previous winner of Best of Young British Novelists) writes a subtle yet intriguing novel, set in the small seaside village of Steerborough, which is a few hours away from London. The protagonist is twenty-seven year old Lily, who lives in London with her boyfriend, Nick. She is pursuing a degree in architecture and working on her thesis, whose subject is deceased architect Klaus Lehmann, a former resident of Steerborough.

Lily moves to Steerborough and rents a cottage to work on her thesis. She takes with her a stack of letters from Klaus Lehmann to his wife Elsa. They chronicle the periods during which Lehmann and his wife lived apart. While Lily's research is supposed to be focused on Lehmann's work as an architect, she quickly becomes intrigued by the possessive love and devotion exhibited in Klaus's letters to Elsa. In turn, Lily cannot avoid examining her relationship with Nick, realizing that there are absences in her own life, voids that will not be filled by her return home to London.

While a great portion of the book centers on Lily, her research, her relationship with her boyfriend, and those that she develops in Steerborough, there is another layer to The Sea House. Its chapters alternate between Lily in the present day, and back in time shortly after World War II, when Klaus Lehmann and his wife Elsa were alive. The Lehmanns spent time with Gertrude, a psychoanalyst, and her friend Max, a deaf artist. The reader is given a perspective of the couple's marriage and lives, in addition to reading Klaus's letters to his wife and Lily's impressions of them.

The Sea House has a subtle depth to it that is not readily apparent in the first several pages. I was slowly but surely drawn into the story. The characters are well developed and there are unexpected and interesting plots twists throughout. Freud devotes considerable attention to the geography and weather conditions of Steerborough, which gives the reader a good sense of life in the quiet, seaside village. I recommend the novel as a compelling story about love and relationships, art and landscapes.

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