Erica Bauermeister – House Lessons/Renovating a Life

Sasquatch Books, Seattle, USA, 2020
Illustrations by Elizabeth Person

I will not for a moment pretend to be an impartial reviewer of Erica Bauermeister’s work. Since reading her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients (Harper Collins, 2009), I have been a rusted-on fan, eagerly awaiting the next story as soon as I have finished the current.

House Lessons is a memoir, slightly fictionalised – the story of the finding, purchase and renovation of a run-down house in Port Townsend, that was eventually to become home for Erica Bauermeister. The house renovation, as indicated by the sub-title, is a metaphor for the more personal renovation of her life, the one by one epiphanies about relationships, self and place.

It is exquisite.

Barbie talks to Erica Bauermeister about House Lessons

At the same time, it is a hymn to the power of architecture, the importance of the Building as home and hearth, keeper of family, house to business or the affairs of state. But most importantly this aspect of the work is about the role of architecture as a determinant of how we operate in a space, personal or other. Readers will find a generous and enlightening bibliography on various aspects of the art and science of architecture at the end of the book.

Erica and her husband find by accident the house that becomes a central character of this tale. It is an immediate love affair, no less overwhelming than one with another human being. Run-down is an inadequate description of the house.

It was owned by a hoarder and when finally the purchase is agreed upon – for the house was not even officially for sale – there is a gargantuan task of clearing out before any actual building renovation can begin. We are talking, decades of grease, rats, wall to wall objects. With the obsession of a lover, the author sets about this task, aided by her family and friends.

Then comes the task of finding the right architect, the right building team – these too come serendipitously, and we cannot resist believing that the universe is speaking.

A mere description of the massive amount of building work, thinking and planning to fix up an old house, would perhaps pall, but this book is not that. It is the unfolding of the development of the author (the person) herself and her relationships with family and others that is at the core of this book. We feel the privilege of intimacy when we read.

For me there was even a frisson of knowing when Erica alludes to the process of writing her first book. One wanted to call aloud, ‘Yes, I know what she was in the throes of creating back then, The School of Essential Ingredients’, before she even mentions the title.

Again, it’s a particular intimacy we feel as readers, a sense of having a life shared with us over time. We are aware, because we are told, that aspects of the story are fiction, aspects are concertinaed; we nevertheless believe utterly in the truth in which we are partaking.

This is a gentle book. Even the cover, so understated compared with most contemporary publishing, invites us to quietness. There is a quiet unwrapping of the decisions that had to be made in renovating the house and the life, including the lover’s anguish in separation for so many years.

Erica Bauermeister and her husband now live in this house and we are the richer for travelling some of the miles between Seattle and Port Townsend on the way to home.

Photo: Susan Doupé

Erica Bauermeister’s work can be found at