The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Viktor and Liesel Landauer are newlyweds in a plum position in Czechoslovakia prior to the stirrings of World War II. They have land given to them by Liesel’s parents. That, along with Viktor’s wealth from his automobile company, provides them the opportunity to conceive of and bring to life their dream house. It is the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who brings their vision of perfection to life, a house predominately of glass and steal. When people know what to think of the house, they are amazed. The glass room, which has panels that will completely slide down to the lower level of the house, is especially impressive. The Landauers host parties and support the arts through the use of their house. In such minimalistic surroundings, there is no where to hide. They take pride in house in that it requires them to live a transparent life with no secrets. It doesn’t take long, however, before there are plenty of secrets. Viktor takes a lover and, after the near fatal birth of their second and last child, Liesel finds solace and comfort in her friend, Hana. Both women are young, sophisticated Czechoslovakians, both of whom have married Jewish men. Despite the upheaval Viktor’s affair brings to their marriage, the Laudauer family must flee together to escape the Nazis, leaving their future and their home to fate.
I found The Glass Room a fascinating novel. It was about the house, which could have only come into existence because of the relationship with Viktor and Liesel. Regardless of what they were trying to portray, their minimalistic home was a reflection of their sparse relationship. They were not compelled or forced into their marriage, yet I never got a real sense of why they wanted to marry in the first place. While they claim that the lack of walls allows for no secrets or deception, I found it to really say that there was no structure or support for their marriage or themselves. Could the house have been brought into existence by a couple in love or did the house create an atmosphere that simply didn’t foster what could have otherwise been a warm, loving marriage?
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this novel is that it is based upon, Villa Tugendhat, a home actually designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The fact that there was such a house and an onyx wall really captured my imagination. Not only was I able to see how the Laudauer’s Glass Room shifted and changed as it was lived in and used over time, I was able to read about what happened to Villa Tugendhat as well. As with Loving Frank, I loved how this novel combined historical fiction along with architectural history. I really love that in a novel and that surprises me a little. I’m not otherwise someone who is curious about architecture. Perhaps because it gives the story structure as well it just makes sense to me.
I cannot say enough about The Glass Room. It was one of the last books I read in 2009 and will be listed among my favorites. I enjoyed the stories of the people populating the Glass Room as much as I enjoyed spending time there. This is my first novel by Simon Mawer and I found him to be an excellent writer and story teller. That this novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize does not surprise me at all. It was just that good.
I would like to thank Tony Viardo from BlueDot Literary, LLC for sending me a review copy of this novel.