Susanne Scholl writes perceptively about ageing in the modern world from the perspectives of four elderly women who share a flat in Vienna.
The owner of the large apartment where the women live is Ella, an activist and a widow. The other residents are Rada, Ella’s housekeeper and cook, who has lived through the horrors of Ceausescu’s Romania; Maggie, Ella’s well-travelled sister, who married a diplomat and worked as an interpreter; and Luise, a putupon divorcee. Visitors to the apartment include Luise’s lesbian daughter, who has an adopted child, and Maggie’s daughter Nellie, who works in a home for teenage asylum seekers.
The novel outlines the personal histories of the female protagonists before focusing on the group in the present day. Together, they navigate their various illnesses as well as the disagreements that are an inevitable part of cohabitation, all the while guided by Ella and her devoted niece Nellie. Finally, we follow Ella as she loses her memory and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her friends rally round, but she suffers a stroke and dies after a swift decline. With her death, the group has lost its centre, and the women are forced to move out of the apartment as Ella’s son wants to move in. We see how the surviving women face up to the challenge of finding a new home.
The Ladies of the House is a pacy read, packed with amusing anecdotes and incidents. The likeable characters have rich personal histories that generate interesting reflections on international politics from the Cold War to the present day, recounted in the novel’s lively dialogue. The narrative offers a female perspective on the twentieth century as well as an entertaining and unusual take on the experience of ageing. In addition to exploring the popular theme of female friendship, the novel also engages with contemporary issues around housing that are very relevant to a modern readership, with older people increasingly opting to live in shared accommodation or to share their homes with others in order to pool their resources and benefit from mutual support.
The Ladies of the House has much to recommend it to an English-language readership, with strong characterisation, an original setting and topical themes.