I read the whole book in a weekend and haven’t felt the same since. I’m wandering my neighborhood these days on the stage set of a hyperreal world. To enter Washtenaw Dairy is to retrace the steps of Laken’s shell-shocked Walker Price, who after the shooting lays his gun on the counter and quietly tells the ice cream scoopers, “Call the police, please. I just shot my mother’s boyfriend.” Signs of local home-improvement projects suddenly suggest unfinished people, like protagonist Kate Kinzler, struggling with a lot more than drywall. I peer down side yards and imagine shadowy figures moving through vine-choked secret arbors unlike anything we conjure up in the Old West Side Garden Club.
In an audacious move, Laken maroons her characters on either side of the racial and socioeconomic divide between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Her intense fantasy Ann Arbor picks up where Nancy Willard (Sister Water) and Charles Baxter (Feast of Love) left off. Like them, she haunts familiar houses and can freak you out with flashbacks of experiences you never had.
I recognized my Old West Side neighborhood in the first paragraph of Dream House. Laken describes a house “the gray-blue of dishwater” with “no dormers or bay windows or Victorian details—just that blunt, workman’s box and triangle, fronted by a wooden porch that sagged toward the street.” While I might not know the exact house she’s describing, I can point to dozens that will pass for it. Ditto for the busybody middle-aged neighbor who “had gone so far on his health craze he looked as desperate and spent as a junkie in nylon tank shirt and short shorts.”