A Lot of People Live in This House, by Bailey Merlin

Dec 8, 2023 | 2024 Winter - Bi+ World Wide Web

Reviewed by Jen Bonardi

If a novel could be an ad, then A Lot of People Live in This House would be a successful campaign to turn us all onto communal living (as if we needed convincing in this economy). After traveling abroad with her husband, Job, Rachel moves in with an eclectic array of ten roommates in Boston while he finishes a retreat in India. She and Job expect to be separated for only a short time but, as the Yiddish adage goes, “Man plans and God laughs.” Rachel arrives at her new abode on March 1, 2020.

It’s great fun to experience dramatic irony not because you remember other parts of the book, but because you actually lived through the events. I found myself yelling at the book as if I were watching a horror movie: “No, Job, don’t wait! Get a flight to Boston now!” 

The novel’s dramatic irony mirrors the way that other characters—even animals—pick up on Rachel’s tells. They sense what she is going through, sometimes before even she realizes. Learning about the intriguing yet wholly believable cast of characters she lives with is utterly enjoyable— even after you recognize that Rachel is kind of a pill, and before you can appreciate the past traumas that prompt her constant state of agitation. 

While her husband is the one named Job, it’s Rachel who has been put through the wringer. Like the biblical character, she can find no reason why terrible fates have befallen her family. I suspect that the word “Lot” is also symbolic, from the book title to the line in the first chapter and echoed in the last: “We can be a lot all at once.” It starts as a warning but feels like it concludes as permission. When you draw lots, you take a gamble, just as Rachel took a gamble on living with a pile of strangers, and they likewise. From another perspective, sometimes you draw the short straw in life, and you need to grieve the loss.

In the Old Testament, when Lot fled his home and then turned back to see his wife, she had turned into a pillar of salt. The reader wonders early on whether Rachel will dissolve and wash away like so much salt if she cannot be reunited with Job. Or is it he who will break under the weight of remaining abroad too long? Salt is often a symbol of permanence, the kind that Rachel desperately wants in a family but also struggles to accept. We see this every time she puts off downloading the calendar app that the house uses. 

In broad strokes, A Lot of People is most reminiscent of the classic play Waiting for Godot. Although Godot leaves much room for interpretation, playwright Samuel Beckett revealed that he was writing about symbiosis. It’s important to note that all the love languages in the novel are beneficial to both the takers and the givers, e.g., sharing tea, cooking (there’s that salt again, not to mention drawing lots), renovating, and solving logistical problems. 

Rachel excels at helping, but at every turn resists others’ offers of assistance. In her journey to connect with people other than Job, grieving becomes a love language, too, and requires reciprocity of vulnerability. A Lot of People is a warm and charming novel, promising that the best of humanity will come shining through if only we give it a chance.

Jen Bonardi manages the Bisexual Resource Center’s volunteer corps, The Honeycomb, and is proud to count author Bailey Merlin among its members.

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