In Los Angeles, a city whose light has captured the eyes of poets, painters and architects, Henry Sullivan works as a building contractor for college-educated, residentially ambitious and wealthy women. While these women are mostly anchored to the ground, their husbands are rarely around, more content to prove themselves by driving fast cars through Westwood while attempting to parachute into the “Land of Opportunity.”
Two women in particular orbit Harry’s life, both looking to change something but no longer willing to wait.
Both prove that their contractor is ultimately just as fragile and tender as the mortar he mixes for the walls he constructs. Sally Stein and Rebecca Paulson are knock-outs, naturally attracted to Henry and his acts of generosity. Once the women were so close they could have been sisters, but over the years they have drifted apart, and Henry wonders why.
Rebecca is unhappily married to her disconsolate and philandering husband, Derrick, while Sally has become a wealthy “tornado of kindness,” a positively gleaming philanthropist who, at the beginning of the story, invites Henry to a “dark dinner party” where food is served by blind people and sampled while everyone is blindfolded. Only beautiful Sally, with “her thick brown hair bound tightly in a ponytail,” can render Henry emotionally powerless, almost bringing him to orgasm via a hand-job under the dinner table.
Perhaps tender Rebecca can offer Henry something more complex. When Henry accepts the offer to remodel her house, the event jumpstarts his first mistake in a triad that centers on Rebecca’s husband and “his twisted little thrill of infidelity.” The vulnerable Rebecca has probably found the man of her dreams, but under the most impossible circumstances. Her attraction to Henry is predictable; it’s just a pity that belligerent Derrick is always on the scene trying to convince Henry of his expertise, even when it's obvious that he
has failed miserably at whatever he was doing prior to his ventures into real estate.
Renovating a home is a rite of passage, “much like getting married or having kids.” Henry spends his career caulking and painting and plastering for the privileged and the rich, but for Rebecca all this becomes something far more. Henry, however, doesn’t see coming the strange and twisted machinations of Derrick Paulson, who plays Henry for a fool, artfully maneuvering him into a place of his own design. Henry is surprised when he discovers that Derrick’s fanatical and never-ending quest for a perfect home is the only way he thinks he can bring home true happiness for him and his wife.
Amid all the demolished drywall, splintered molding, insulation, carpet, and tack-boards, Rebecca’s temptations lead to more changes, more urges to upgrade, and more stress on her already troubled marriage. Henry finds himself blinded by his own vision and caught in a romantic three-way, buffeted by Sally’s sexual come-ons and blindsided by his bourgeoning feelings for Rebecca: “If Rebecca was the foundation of my demise, Sally Stein was the substructure - an equally important component in any house of cards.”
The author’s astute observations on the nature of the human condition define this entertaining story, Henry’s renovation of Rebecca’s house perhaps symbolic for his own emotional growth even as he pushes everything into the background and out of sight to the point where he doesn’t even recognize it anymore. In the end, Henry’s life is probably just like the buildings he carefully constructs: “it‘s all about fractions and trying to keep things square, and it only takes one miscalculation to derail the project.”
The novel contains a smorgasbord of tips on house-remodeling, the author’s own experiences as a contractor complementing the chaotic mix of designers and architects, landscape artists and painters, plumbers and electricians who pepper the lively narrative.
Full of hipsters and late-blooming Breakfast Club wannabes, Hispanic tradesmen and young guns, this novel is essentially about loneliness and the nature of trust and vulnerability. Framing his novel
with the building blocks of love, the author’s protagonist eventually finds himself lost within the landscape of a contractor's Los Angeles,
where’s he’s left to hold the measurements of an entertainment center he has no time to build.