The House of Dreams: A Novel

The House of Dreams: A Novel

by Kate Lord Brown


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A beautifully written novel based on the true-life story of Varian Fry, called “the artists’ Schindler,” who rescued thousands of Europe’s finest creative minds from certain death in WWII.

In 2000, Sophie Cass, an ambitious journalist, may have finally found her big break. Convinced a celebrated painter in the Hamptons is hiding a dark secret, she sets off to unravel the truth about his past. Her research takes her back decades to 1940, as an international group of artists and intellectuals gather at The House of Dreams, a beautiful villa just outside Marseilles where American journalist Varian Fry and his remarkable team are working to help them escape France. Despite the incredible danger they all face, The House of Dreams is a place of true camaraderie and creativity—and the setting of a love affair that changed the course of the painter’s life forever. But as Sophie digs further into his past, she begins to wonder whether some secrets are better left untouched.

Inspired by the real-life heroism of Varian Fry and the volunteers who risked their lives to help save legendary figures like Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, and Max Ernst, Kate Lord Brown’s The House of Dreams is a lyrically told novel of great courage, love, and the power of art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250112422
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,172,783
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

KATE LORD BROWN is the internationally bestselling author of The Perfume Garden, which was shortlisted for the UK Romantic Novel of the Year. She won a BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition, Middle East region, was a finalist in ITV’s The People’s Author competition, and has an MA in creative writing. She grew up in Devon, England, and currently lives in the Middle East with her family.

Read an Excerpt

The House of Dreams

By Kate Lord Brown

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Kate Lord Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08454-5


Flying Point, Long Island

September 2000


There are few things emptier than the space where a Christmas tree used to be. At least, that's what Annie always says. If my lovely girl had her way, we'd have a tree all year long and the white lights strung out on the deck. When I was younger, I'd swim out at sunset and see Venus and the stars above and that rope of lights guiding me home, luminous as pearls on the dark throat of the bay. When we walked the dogs along the beach at night, she'd take my hand or loop her arm around my waist. Gabe, she'd say, look, it's like our own galaxy on the shore.

Plenty are surprised by this home of ours. They expect the great man to have something grander, but they don't see I have everything I ever dreamed of here. I have the clear light of the sea spilling in through the square open doors to the barn where I work, and I have Annie. One summer I paid a bunch of boys to come up from Pennsylvania to raise the barn for me — it's an old red colonial, with a hipped roof and doors that open wide to the north. I need space to work, to spread my canvases, but Annie never wanted a studio. When I offered to build her one, she said, "What do I want with that?" She just set up a little table off the kitchen, facing the wall. She says she likes to be in the middle of things, so the kids can come and go as she sews her beautiful clothes. Her work's in collections across the country, but you wouldn't know it to look at her with her head bent over her embroidery. There's always a dog sitting at her feet and a cat curled up in the warmth of the lamplight beside her as she sews. First it was our own kids, and now there's always one grandchild or another in the high chair beside her or playing with their bricks or dolls on the floor and the radio singing away in the background. Maybe that's why people love her art — each stitch pulses and shines with life. My paintings scare people, intimidate them. They are big and intense, just right for uncompromising white-box galleries and soaring corporate atriums. I know which I'd rather live with. Over time people confused me with my paintings. Here's something I've learned — if you do good work, make it to my age, and keep your trap shut, you become a reclusive genius. I like my reputation, play up to it: the enigmatic old man of abstraction. People are afraid to ask too many questions, which suits me just fine. Only the bravest bother me out here. I glance over at the girl's letter on the table. Only the boldest find me.

My cup of coffee's grown cold as I rock the child in my arms and look out to sea. I'm listening to Billie Holiday singing "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" on my 1959 Magnavox Imperial, and Lady Day's voice is dancing up among the rafters with the angels, the Calder mobile swinging with the tune as it rises into the air like bubbles in pure water. This song is Annie's favorite, and she always has a mischievous glint in her eye, singing along softly as we dance, our bare feet shuffling on the sandy deck overlooking the sea. My wife knows me well. I've lied about plenty in my life, but I never lied about loving her.

I love this time of year, too, always have. There's nothing like an empty beach for me, with the dazzling white sand, the sea turning to winter swells, and the pure blue sky above you. I can breathe here. Every day I wake feeling like the first man on earth, with his Eve at his side. After Labor Day, once all the fancy cottages along the dunes close down for the season and their topiary is tied up in its dust sheets for the winter, Annie and I kick off our shoes, get our toes in the sand, and take a walk down to our beach. We build a bonfire, grill a fish or two, and toast another summer's passing with a glass of Chardonnay. Annie doesn't drink much, but those nights she curls up under an old plaid blanket, and her cheeks flush, and she talks freely about the past, our life, and the future like the girl I met used to when we walked in the woods at Air-Bel like children in a fairy tale.

I am a contented man. This is all I wish for my children. I gave them each enough to help them start out in life, but not so much that they didn't have to work at it. Too much ease can ruin you; that's what I've always thought when I look at some of the kids of wealthy folks I've known. You lose your edge. I didn't want the kids to struggle as Annie and I did, but the rest I quietly gave away. If some fool banker wants to pay my dealers a million bucks for one of my early abstracts, then let him. Hell, I am the Robin Hood of the art world. There are plenty more folks in the world need the money more than we do, and I have so much to be thankful for in this life that I've had, this good and simple life I don't deserve.


Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Wednesday, September 6, 2000


A flurry of white wings wakes her, whirling, silhouetted against the bright morning light spilling through the curtainless loft window. Sophie leaps from deep slumber, sits bolt upright on the living room sofa, shielding her face with her arm from the light, from the bird. She squints her eyes, makes out the dove's frantic search for the narrow margin of space it slipped in through, helpless wings battering the high panes of glass.

"How did you get in here?" Sophie throws wide the window. The noise of the waking city spills into the studio on the warm breeze: honking traffic below, the whirr of air conditioners on the roof above, a tinny radio somewhere, playing "Said I Loved You ... But I Lied."

Jess's favorite, she thinks instantly. A Pavlovian cocktail of memories swirls in her mind. She remembers teasing him about his taste in music when they met, how his unlikely love of power ballads became a running joke: Seriously? Beneath that Brooks Brothers suit you're all big hair and stonewashed denim? Sophie thinks of the night they slow danced to the song on the deck at some party in East Hampton — his request. Everyone had laughed and groaned as the DJ played the tune, but that gave the moment, the way Jess had walked toward her and held out his hand, a perfect lightness. She remembers his certainty, his focus only on her, the sound of the surf, and the sweet taste of strawberries still on her lips as he kissed her. She flexes her hand at the memory of the ring sliding onto her finger, the glint of the stone in the moonlight. Sophie gathers up the white bedsheet. Of all the songs. Our song ... She corrects herself. His song. The tune carries up, up into the morning sky, from an open doorway on Grand Street, taking her thoughts with it.

Sophie speaks softly to the bird, calming its frantic search for freedom. "There you go," she says, dropping the sheet over it the moment it lands in the corner of the studio. Gently, she enfolds the bird in her hands, feels the staccato beat of its heart against her fingers, the fine, cathedral arch of its breastbones.

At the window, she releases it, watches it soar up across Brooklyn into the hazy morning sky. The air is hot, edible, laced with the scent of the streets — gasoline, coffee, ripe melon skins in the Dumpsters behind the grocery store. The dove joins its dull-plumed friends roosting on the pediment of the building opposite, a pale punctuation mark among the Morse code line of birds cooing and shaking the night from their feathers.

Sophie sits on the windowsill in the sunshine, the brick already warm against her aching back through the thin cotton of her white camisole. She closes her eyes, raises her face to the morning sun, and cricks her neck from side to side, loosening the tense ligaments. Her gold-blond hair spills across her shoulders, a glossy halo she scoops up and secures in a loose bun with practiced ease. Beside the window, the sagging red velvet sofa and single pillow still bear the imprint of her restless sleep. The tune ends, and as the radio station jingle releases her from thoughts of Jess, the letter runs through her mind again, as it has on a permanent loop since she woke at four A.M. Was I too hard? she thinks. What if Lambert won't see me? She has read the letter so many times that she knows it by heart. "Professional investigative journalist." She cringes inwardly. Wonder what effect "newly graduated arts writer with zero professional experience" would have had on his hotshot lawyers?

At the sound of paws trotting across the bare concrete floor, Sophie turns and smiles. "Hey, Mutt." The dachshund yawns and stretches, front legs extended, tail wagging high. "C'mon," she says, swinging down from the window. She freshens up, picks out a clean white shirt, and shrugs it on. Sophie reaches for the lead spooled on her suitcase. She rubs her thumb across a curling airline sticker on the case, thinking of the last trip she took with Jess to Mexico. A knot forms in her throat as she remembers it all — the color, the light, the heat. Coming home, she thinks. She remembers dozing on Jess's shoulder in the taxi as they drove through the snowy streets of New York to their cozy apartment in Greenwich Village and wonders if she'll ever be that happy again. It's all gone. I made my choice. She glances across at the dog, who sits waiting for her, his head tilted. "I know, I know," she says, peeling the sticker off and screwing it up. She flicks the ball of paper into a wire basket beside Alisha's drawing board and stops to look at the wedding dress designs her friend is working on. Sophie reaches out and touches the cool bolt of duchess satin. "Could have been me," she says under her breath, and she pads across the studio, sunlight warming the open space in wide parallelograms now. "It's just you and me, now," she says as Mutt follows her, tail wagging in hope. She clicks on the coffee machine, takes out a fresh pack of Zabar's coffee from the mercy parcel of provisions her mother insisted she take, and rips open the seal, inhaling the rich, smoky scent as she tips it into the filter. She glances at the bag of groceries, spots her mother's familiar, looping hand on a note tucked beneath some bagels. Sophie smooths it out: Hang in there. I love you, Mom x. It is pinned to a copy of a Henry James essay, and Sophie sees she has underlined a section.

At the door, she pauses to slip her tanned feet into a pair of white Converse sneakers and loosely buttons the shirt, rolling the sleeves and knotting it at the waist of her wide-legged chinos. Mutt's paws skitter impatiently on the floor, and he nudges her leg with his head.

"Just a second," she says. Sophie tucks a pair of Ray-Bans into her hair and checks her reflection, rubbing away a smudge of mascara from beneath her sea-green eyes. She wipes a trace of toothpaste from the crease in her bottom lip with her thumb. You can do this, she tells herself, her mind racing ahead to her meeting with Lambert, her stomach taut with excitement and nerves. She has imagined what it will be like to meet him, finally, a thousand times. "Be generous, be delicate, and always pursue the prize," she says under her breath, quoting from the James essay. She tucks the papers into her battered leather satchel and grabs her keys and a few dollar bills, then slides back the dead bolts on the heavy metal door. "Let's go."

On the street, her tension eases as they walk around the block to Bedford Avenue, the pulse of a bass line drifting from a pimped-up Chevy on a side street beating in time with her heart as she pauses for Mutt to christen his favorite lamppost near the Kam Sing Restaurant. The metal cellar door is propped open, and the scent of last night's cooking oil and spices drifts up to her. Sophie reaches into her pocket for her phone and dials her mother's number, stepping aside for a group of early gray-faced commuters heading toward the L. She catches her reflection in the window, a white ceramic lucky cat waving at her from the counter. Sophie frowns at the busy signal and slips her phone away.

"Finished? Sure?" she says as the dog walks on. She ties him up outside the grocery store on a wall scrawled with graffiti, and he waits, his unwavering eyes on her as she buys fresh orange juice. Sophie takes a copy of The New York Times from the vending machine. She sees his name instantly, there, beneath the headline. It's as if the print loses focus, leaving two words in dazzling clarity: Jess Wallace. Mutt barks, impatient, and Sophie can't help smiling as she walks over and unties the lead. "Hey, I was only a minute." The dog's good mood is infectious; joyful wags contort his whole body — they are together again, simple as that. Sophie loops the lead and bag over her wrist and flicks on through the paper as they walk, deliberately not reading the front-page article but instead searching for her latest column on a new exhibition that has just opened. She finds it way back in the "Arts" section, tucked among the advertisements. It feels like an afterthought.

In the studio, she hears the shower running, Alisha singing loud and true along to Macy Gray on the radio. Sophie pours a cup of coffee and clears a space among the sketches and bolts of fabric on the dining table, spreads out the photographs and documents from her satchel as if she is dealing cards. Each is labeled with a Post-it note, written clearly in black ink: Gabriel Lambert, 1970? Last known photo. Varian Fry, André Breton, 1940. JC: Gabriel and Annie Lambert, party, Long Island, 1960s. This last photograph Sophie picks up, studies closely. The young woman wears her blond hair fashionably loose, a heavy blunt fringe over dark kohled eyes that gaze, full of love, at the lean, tanned man at her side. His black hair is graying at the temples, worn long enough to brush the collar of his faded denim shirt. His eyes are fierce, the color of the sky. The chemistry between them is palpable, even down the years, no air between their bodies, his arm protectively around her waist, her palm resting flat against his chest. How do you do that? she thinks. How do you keep that passion for a lifetime? Her stomach tightens with nerves at the thought of finally meeting them. Their legendary love affair fascinates her; the idea that sometimes there is a happily ever after is a beacon of hope in the darkness.

"Hey, honey, I didn't hear you come in last night," Alisha says. The red of her sarong flares as she walks through sunlight, beads of water glistening on her freshly oiled skin.

"Didn't want to wake you. How was your break?"

"You know, Labor Day, my family." Alisha purses her lips. "How's your mom?"

"She sends her love."

"D'you manage to store all your stuff in her barn?"

"Just about." Sophie raises an eyebrow as she looks down at Mutt. "Mom suggested we should just move in there. What do you think?" The dog cocks his head, listening.

"Where's she live again?"


"Could be worse." Alisha shrugs, takes a bright green apple from the bowl on the counter. "If the Times don't take you on full-time, you could get yourself a job in one of those fancy-assed lobster restaurants."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Sophie says. "Everywhere's closing for the season, but I'm heading out to Long Island again tomorrow, so I'll see if anyone's hiring, just in case."

"Ha, ha." Alisha bites into the apple. "Man, you spend more time out there than in the city lately. This article you've been working on?"

"Yeah." Sophie rubs the bridge of her nose, rests her lips against her index finger as she stares at the photo of Gabriel and Annie. "I'll be glad when it's done."

"Sleeping any better?"

Sophie looks up from the photo. "So-so. I've just got all these questions running around in my mind."

"Tonight you take the bedroom for a change. You need some sleep if you're going to face off with the great Gabriel Lambert, baby girl." Alisha comes over to her. "Were you up all night working again?"

"It has to be perfect." It's got to be, she thinks. What was it her editor had said? The correction rate on your pieces is too high, Sophie. Accuracy is everything at the Times . You're quick, you're willing, but you're making too many beginners' mistakes. If you want to make it, you've got to check and double-check every lead, every line. I know you've had a tough few months, but if you can't nail this Lambert story, I'm going to have to let you go. "Talking of perfect, see this?" She taps the front page of the paper.


Excerpted from The House of Dreams by Kate Lord Brown. Copyright © 2016 Kate Lord Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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