The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall

My book club meets once every five weeks or so. It’s organized so that each of the ten members chooses one book per year…and the rule is that it has to be a book you haven’t read. The reveal is a big deal to us – we all love to see what’s coming next. Although we do have a big book store in town now, it’s still not always possible to stray too far off the beaten track. That’s why, when I was preparing my reveal in December, I took advantage of the great fiction sale at Book Closeouts. com. I read reviews and blurbs and blogs and finally made my decision. Book Closeouts had 12 copies of the book and they were $1.24 each…for a hard cover! So, I was able to buy a copy for everyone in the group and hand them out – gift-wrapped – at our Christmas meeting. So much fun!

Last night we discussed my pick. The House of Gentle Men has been on my radar for a long time. A few years back I read Hepinstall’s novel The Absence of Nectar which I liked quite  a lot.  There was something intriguing about the premise of The House of Gentle Men so I took a chance. I’m not sure that everyone in my book club would agree, but this book paid off for me.

The House of Gentle Men is actually the name of an establishment run by Mr. Olen, a single father who is hoping that if he makes up, in some way, for neglecting the wife who subsequently left him, she’ll return to him. He opens a house for Gentle Men, offering men who have the need to atone for some past wrongdoing the opportunity to redeem themselves.

“You think you could spend all night with someone, just kissing? Touching? Whispering sweet nothings? Maybe a little waltzing?”

These are the questions he asks, Justin, a young man who wanders into the house looking for a way to right his own wrongs.  Justin, as it turns out, has a lot to atone for. Seven years previous, while he was a young soldier on maneuvers, he came upon two fellow soldiers raping a young girl in the woods. Instead of doing the right thing, he took his turn.

Several lives intersect at the house for gentle men. Hepinstall deftly creates interior lives for even minor characters. All of them are damaged in some way; some of them are reprehensible; many of them deserve the redemption they so ardently seek.

This book took a few pages (about 75) to work for me. It seemed somehow cheesy –  this whole idea of a place where tired, frustrated, broken women could go to find comfort – not from sex  (although everything but intercourse is allowed), but from companionship. But, in the end, it did work . I grew attached to the characters, Charlotte in particular – who loses her voice (or chooses not to speak) after the attack. As she navigates her way out of her pain and anger, into the light offered by forgiveness, it’s almost impossible not to feel something for her.

So The House of Gentle Men may require a suspension of disbelief, but I think it’s worth it in the end.

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