The Sea House: A Novel

The Sea House: A Novel

by Esther Freud

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The architect Klaus Lehmann loves his wife, Elsa, with a passion that continues throughout their married life despite long periods of separation. Almost half a century after Lehmann's death in the village of Steerborough, a young woman, Lily, arrives to research his life and work. Pouring over Klaus's letters to Elsa, Lily pieces together the story of their lives


The architect Klaus Lehmann loves his wife, Elsa, with a passion that continues throughout their married life despite long periods of separation. Almost half a century after Lehmann's death in the village of Steerborough, a young woman, Lily, arrives to research his life and work. Pouring over Klaus's letters to Elsa, Lily pieces together the story of their lives together and apart. And alone in her rented cottage by the sea, she begins to sense an absence in her own life that may not be filled by simply going home.

The Sea House is the story of the village of Steerborough and the marshes and the sea beyond. It is the story of one generation living in the footprints of another; of a landscape shaped by lives, and lives shaped by landscape. With characteristic skill and a new depth and range, Esther Freud explores the twisting paths that people take — and the places where those paths meet.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Gold
The Sea House is a sensuous and intelligent novel about love and the traces it leaves, and how certain places have the power to transform.
The Washington Post
The New Yorker
In Freud’s fifth novel, a young woman arrives in a small English seacoast village to research a thesis about a German architect who lived and worked there. While poring over his passionate letters to his wife (letters that raise questions about her own relationship with a man back in London), she becomes involved with the fractious family next door. Interspersed through this narrative is one concerning events decades earlier, when an artist visiting from London starts to make paintings of every house in the village and falls for the architect’s wife. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades, rather at the expense of vivid characterization, but Freud’s gift for natural description is such that she manages to turn the village’s seaside topography into a sentient being, with its own stores of memory and malice.
Michael Gorra
The deeper you go in The Sea House, the more you realize that Lily herself is a kind of refugee, an exile from the conditions of her own London life. She has begun, like Max, to float in isolation, and with each chapter the parallels between them multiply.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Painter Lucian's daughter, Sigmund's great-granddaughter and an accomplished novelist herself (Hideous Kinky), Freud invokes her father's family history in this splendidly written, evocative novel. Inspired by the letters of her grandfather, the architect Ernst Freud, she weaves an elegantly paced, double-stranded narrative set in the English coastal village of Steerborough. In the present, 20-something grad student Lily retreats to Steerborough for the summer with a bundle of letters that architect Klaus Lehman wrote to his wife, Elsa. Her story alternates with that of a group of German-Jewish migr s, including Klaus, Elsa and the deaf painter Max Meyer, who summer in Steerborough in 1953. While Lily pores over Klaus's adoring but paternalistic, bullying letters, she and her workaholic architect boyfriend Nick, living in London, are nearly incommunicado. "The men she knew didn't seem to feel the need to so utterly possess their women," Lily muses, somewhat regretfully. Between infrequent, strained visits from Nick, Lily makes a pretense at work, suns, swims and befriends the little girls next door-and their virile, working-class father. Freud depicts postwar Steerborough from the point of view of Max and his hostess, Gertrude Jilks, an English child psychoanalyst and friend of his recently deceased sister, Kaethe. As Max hungers for the beautiful Elsa while mourning Kaethe and the immeasurable loss of his life and family in Germany-a subtext Freud renders all the more powerful with slow, subtle revelations-he paints every house in the village, creating a scroll that Lily will one day discover on exhibition. The novel's setting is smalltown, but its thematic scope is generous: from Old World jealous love to modern-day commitment issues, art, psychoanalysis, dislocation and yearning for home. Though the culmination of the love stories feels too deliberately plotted, Freud has constructed her novel with beautiful precision. 3-city author tour. (Apr. 20) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In a cottage by the sea, a young woman researching the life of architect Klaus Lehmann and his beloved wife comes to realize that her own life lacks passionate conviction. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British novelist Freud (Summer at Gaglow, 1998, etc.) traces two adulterous love affairs, separated by half a century, in the seaside village of Steerborough. German refugee Max Meyer arrives there in 1953, struggling to regain a sense of purpose after the death of his sister. Fifty years later, Lily Brannan rents a cottage in Steerborough so she can research her architecture school project about the work of Klaus Lehmann, who like Max fled Germany for England to escape Nazi persecution of Jews. In fact, we learn as the two stories unfold in parallels that are almost too neat, Max met Klaus and fell in love with his wife Elsa during the summer of '53. As Lily reads Klaus's letters to Elsa from the 1930s, when he traveled frequently to foster his career but sent hectoring missives home, similarities also become apparent between Klaus's attempts to direct his beloved's life from afar and Lily's fraught relationship with her ambitious, controlling boyfriend Nick, a rising young London architect. Freud vividly sketches the quiet charms of village life as Max becomes immersed in his effort to paint every house in Steerborough on a single paper scroll, and as Lily considers moving there permanently as her frustration with Nick rises and her attraction to a young father with a troubled wife grows. Though the Holocaust is never mentioned directly, the German characters' memories impart a sense of menace, heightened by references to Steerborough's susceptibility to flooding. Rising waters provoke the climax of both stories, and Max's and Lily's affairs both end sadly, although the author gives one of her protagonists a tentative second chance at love. Freud writes with elegance, intertwines manycomplex narrative threads with impressive skill, and limns her characters' psychological states with acuity; she also provides astute insights into the creative process in a series of letters from Max's fictional mentor. Indeed, The Sea House is perhaps a little too accomplished for its own good, somewhat scanting the messy ambiguities of real life for the admittedly considerable satisfactions of highly polished art. Intelligent and reflective, but curiously unmoving. Agent: Georgia Garrett/AP Watt

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Sea House

A Novel
By Esther Freud


ISBN: 0-06-056549-7

Chapter One

Gertrude's house was pink. That stone-ground Suffolk pink that managed to be manly, and from the front it looked closed in and dark. Max waited for a moment before knocking on the door, wondering who had built on the ugly flat-roofed porch, and then a shadow appeared behind the mottled glass. 'Come in, COME IN.' Gertrude spoke too loudly, unable to accept Max couldn't hear, and he stood quite still in the open doorway and watched the exaggerated movements of her mouth.

Max Meyer was in Steerborough to see if he might do a painting of Marsh End. It was a mercy invitation, a probable last wish from his sister Kaethe, but all the same he was grateful to have been asked, grateful to Gertrude for remembering him and asking him to come. Dear Max, she'd written. I know how much you must be suffering your loss, how much we, all of us, miss Kaethe, but would you consider coming up to do a picture of my house? I shall be here all summer. If you feel you can, please let me know and I'll explain about the trains. The letter was dated May the 29th, and, to his surprise, within a week he had packed up his paints and brushes, a roll of canvas and some clothes, and set out for Liverpool Street Station to catch the first of three connecting trains.

Gertrude Jilks was a child psychoanalyst, a woman with no children of her own, but standing beside her on the doorstep was a small boy with white blond hair. Gertrude didn't introduce him, and he stood there looking at his feet, shuffling them back and forth inside his shoes. 'COME IN,' Gertrude said again, and Max remembered with a pang that she disliked him.

'Yes, thank you, of course.' He lowered his head and together they stepped through into the main part of the house, a drawing-room with French windows open to the lawn, dark furniture falling into shadow after the shock of so much sun. Max walked across the wooden floor and out into the garden. The lawn was rich and wide, spreading out in lanes to one tall tree, a spruce pine with sand around its roots, and as Max walked out to it, his bag still in his hand, he imagined that behind the raised ridge of garden hedge the ground was shingle to the sea. 'Yes,' he said, 'I will paint the house, the back of the house certainly.' There was a bench cradled up against one wall and the windows of the upper floor were open to the sky.

'That is the house.' Gertrude had followed him. 'Alf,' she said, turning, 'you may go.' Alf was seven. He was the only child of her cleaning lady and Gertrude was paying for him to learn the piano. He didn't want piano lessons, but it didn't seem right just to give him money, so each Saturday at half past two he went to Miss Cheese for his lesson and then came back to give her his report. No, he wasn't making any progress, she explained to Max, but there was nothing else to do but carry on.

'I see.' Max nodded, although he wasn't at all sure that he did, and Gertrude picked up his bag and showed him to his room.

All his life Max had dreamt of houses. It didn't need a psychoanalyst, not even a children's one, to explain to him why that was so. But even before the move from Germany that was likely to have shaken him, he'd been dreaming of his home. He'd made a map of his house, Heiderose, when he was ten years old - the garden, the park, the big and little woods, the fields, the river and the road. This map had been one of the few things he'd taken with him when he left. The map, and an unwieldy wooden table he'd carved from one of the estate trees himself. Why he'd taken the table he still didn't know, when he'd fully expected to return, but he'd sealed his lifetime's correspondence up into its one deep drawer and had it shipped ahead to England. Max had the table, the letters in their drawer, but not the map, and it occurred to him he might even with his eyes closed, now in 1953, sit down and draw it from memory.

Houses, walls, villages and roads. Since the start of Kaethe's illness his dreams were overrun. He'd be travelling, always at the wheel of some majestic car, when he'd take a turning and find a hidden piece of land. Sometimes it was a cluster of houses, high up, their pathways dropping to the sea. Or he would come round a bend, out into the open, and find white railings, a square in a village that had not been there before. But what he never found was the actual house he dreamt of in the day. It was always just around the corner, out of his view, and sometimes his search was like a tunnel, leading only to one oval patch of sky. Now he dreamt of Gertrude's house, its rich, dense lawn, and the pine tree so straight and feathery, a lookout over the sea. He'd start with that, he thought, it was thin enough to stand right in the foreground of the painting and not obscure the view.


Excerpted from The Sea House by Esther Freud Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Esther Freud is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud and the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud. She trained as an actress before writing her first novel. Her books have been translated into thirteen languages. She lives in London.

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