Every once and a while I stumble across a book that is so eerily relatable I can hardly put it down. L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life—a story of “redemption through real estate”—is one of those books. The theme of stagnation permeates throughout the story, warning its readers of the consequences of passivity.
Lowell Lake has just turned thirty and has come to the stark realization that he hasn’t done anything remarkable with his life. He recounts an aimless youth that yielded him a Stanford education (the story of its financing is one of many very funny sections of the book), a mismatched marriage and a big move to New York City. Lowell’s dreams of writing a novel are dashed shortly after the move so he takes a post at a plumbers’ trade magazine and spends his next nine years simply going through the motions. It is only when Lowell comes across a dilapidated old mansion in Brooklyn that he becomes proactive with his life. Lowell risks his life savings and sacrifices his relationship with his wife—or rather as he comes to realize, his relationship with his marriage—to restore the mansion to its former glory.
Once the novel hits its groove, its message to me was clear: be proactive with your life, or suffer the consequence of unhappiness. Lowell lets life happen to him. He proves to be competent enough to graduate college and charming enough to find a spouse, but that is where his accomplishments end. In fact, Lowell’s post-collegiate life is so uneventful that the author doesn’t have to waste his time remarking on it. However, once Lowell takes himself out of his comfort zone and throws himself into the renovation of the house in Brooklyn, the sources of his unhappiness become clear: he married the wrong woman and pursued the wrong profession. However, instead of addressing his mistakes, Lowell acts out in a different way, making for quite the surprise ending.
While there are a few sections of the book that come close to dragging, Davis’s expert style and brutally hilarious observations keep the pages turning. Even when I noticed myself beginning to lose interest during the Lakes’ initial tour of the mansion, Davis had me laughing out loud at the “soul-food” comment and Lowell’s subsequent mortification.
Also, while I found Lowell to be frustratingly realistic and relatable, unfortunately none of the other characters rise above the level of caricature. Lowell’s wife (her first name is rarely used) is nothing more than a materialistic nag and her parents the stereotypical difficult in-laws. While the novel is short enough that the lack of character depth doesn’t take away much from the overall effect of the story, the book would have certainly benefited from a better-developed supporting cast.
L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life is a great read from the treasure trove that is New York Review Books. Their site is highly recommended for anyone at a loss for what to read next!