Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

This Spiteful Old House

In Courtney Miller Santo’s new novel, a renovation project tests the limits of family ties

Located in Memphis, high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the structure at the center of Courtney Miller Santo’s new novel, Three Story House, was built in the 1920s by Roger Linwood, a man cheated out of his inheritance by his half-brother, Thomas. When Roger—the offspring of a secret second marriage—shows up unexpectedly after their father’s death, Thomas grudgingly gives him a triangular piece of land too small to hold a traditional home, in the hope that he will go away and not come back. Roger responds by building the towering, odd-shaped house and living there for the rest of his life. The locals call it “Spite House.”

Eventually Roger marries Thomas’s young daughter, Mellie, further staking his claim to a life lived in the midst of his family, without ever being accepted as one of them. More than eighty-five years later, their granddaughter, Lizzie Linwood concludes, “Life had a way of being a son of a bitch.” Her grandfather would no doubt have agreed.

Lizzie, a twenty-six-year-old soccer player, is one of three cousins who come together to renovate the now-dilapidated Spite House and save it from foreclosure. The yearlong project comes at a low point for Lizzie, who is recovering from her third torn ACL, an injury that may finally end her hopes of Olympic gold. But happy memories of the house in which she once lived with her beloved grandmother finally persuade Lizzie to take on the project, with help from her two cousins. The three girls are known in the family as the “Triplins”—so close they seem more like triplets than cousins.

Elyse, a quiet Boston native, is fleeing her failed bed-and-breakfast business and the devastating news that her perfect sister is marrying the man she has loved since childhood. Working as a bartender to bring in money during the renovations, Elyse believes the house has summoned them. “The place was practically alive,” she explains, “and there was something in the way that its facade failed to accurately represent its oddness that reminded her of all her favorite drinkers at the bar.” Despite the difficulty of living in the midst of chaos and the seemingly endless list of required improvements, Elyse remains optimistic: “She knew it would all work out. This house had to have been built for more than spite.”

Confident, free-spirited Isobel, former star of a successful teen sitcom, worries that her glory days are behind her. She makes her living restoring old homes in L.A., a skill she learned from her father. Her contribution to the project is much more hands-on, and she sees the house less romantically than either of her cousins can. “Looking at a place like this, you realize there’s not much difference between ugly and beautiful,” she says, but she’s ready nevertheless to pitch in and save Lizzie’s inheritance. Isobel’s acting career gets a boost when the cousins are asked to star in a reality show about the fortunes of Spite House. But when the producers dig too deeply into their personal lives, their loyalty to each other is tested, and the fate of the house hangs in the balance.

Careful readers may notice the occasional plot point left unresolved or wish that Santo had integrated more of the family history into the body of the novel rather than explaining it in an appendix. Another appendix includes several famous examples of spite houses, which makes for an interesting addition to the novel. Ultimately, however, the real centerpiece of Santo’s engaging and suspenseful story is less the house itself—inadequate plumbing, dangerous wiring, and all—than the warmth and depth of the cousins’ relationship, qualities that are revealed in the healing of the house. As these young women weather life’s unexpected changes—romantic heartache, health problems, family dysfunction, career complications—their love and support for one another remain constant.

Among hidden compartments and mysterious boxes filled with scraps of memories, a tangled family story, and decades-old lies, Spite House reveals its secrets in stages as the cousins peel back the layers of the physical house—and their shared family history—exposing old wounds and revealing buried truths. Elyse’s long-lived Aunt Anna makes a cameo appearance from Santo’s first novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree, to provide a little perspective. “Just remember how very long life can be,” she advises the girls, “and how very unexpected.”