The Door by Magda Szabo (1987; 2005)

Originally published in 1987 in Hungary, The Door arrived via Amazon as a githe-door-szaboft from my sister.  We were planning a trip to Budapest to visit my son, and she was combing for quality books about or written by Hungarians.  Turns out this one was reviewed in the NYT just last year as a relatively unknown gem.  Not much happens in this story. Mostly it’s a story about the relationship between two women–the narrator, a writer, and her housekeeper, Emerence.  And through them, it is also a study in all human relationships.  It deserves to be read slowly, to notice the intricacies of the push and pull of people who depend on one another.  In this particular relationship, it is Emerence, the illiterate housekeeper who also sweeps the street (year round) in front of 11 houses on the street, takes care of the sick, and also is some sort of animal whisperer, that wields the power.  The story is told in flashback to a time when the narrator (who only mentions her name once or twice) gets her writing career back up and running after a hiatus through the Communist years in Hungary, she and her husband need a housekeeper, but when she finds Emerence, it is Emerence who agrees to “try them out.” She remains a mysterious woman (often arriving and leaving at odd hours and in silence) throughout the novel as the narrator tries–sometimes successfully and often not–to understand her. Their relationship teeter totters as the narrator missteps, then backsteps, and takes a step forward to repair their working relationship.  It sounds weird that a 250+ page novel centering around an educated writer and her peasant housekeeper could be so engaging.  But it is. The writing is beautiful, and the Hungarian history embedded into the story offers the larger context of the political and economic landscape, much of which also contributes to the awkward balance and co-dependence in their relationship. The fact that it’s told in flashback–when the narrator is an old woman–contributes to its reflective quality. This is not a fast read.  It deserves pondering, trying to make sense of the most intricate human interaction and all of its emotional and psychological complexities.

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