FOR MANY YEARS, THE GOOGLE EARTH map of Escalada Terrace in Los Angeles included an aerial shot of a small house with an old mattress in the yard. This is LA Times columnist Meghan Daum's house, and in her wise and funny memoir she recounts the nineteen moves, fourteen roommates, two dogs, and the one, possibly two, live-in boyfriends who lead her — and her mattress — to it. "Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house,'" Daum begins, thus launching a recounting of what is truly an absurd number of moves over the past fifteen years. This story of "a very imperfect life lived among very imperfect houses," she declares, is written in homage to the wistful yearnings that have fueled her "lifelong game of house."
Daum's relentless search is an inherited one, she says, and can be traced back to her parents and their preoccupation with shedding the residue of their humble, coal-mining-town origins. But moving up in the world, as it turns out, means moving around, and with Daum in tow, they travel from Palo Alto, California, to Chicago, Illinois, to Austin, Texas, and then to Ridgewood, New Jersey. Even once they've settled in New Jersey, weekends are spent attending open houses.
Predictably, Daum absorbs her parents' "perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination point of a moving van." Once she hits college, she's out the gate. After staying put in the same dorm room for the entirety of her freshman year at Vassar (she was told she had Meryl Streep's old room), she goes on to move once every semester, from different dorm rooms, to off-campus housing, to New York City. She moves so many times that she stops dismantling her speakers from her stereo. By the time she graduates, she's lived in ten different places, managing "to major in English but also to minor in moving."
All the moving, she surmises, was part of her quest for "domestic integrity" — i.e., a desire "to not feel like an impostor in your home and, therefore, in your life." She briefly finds domestic bliss in a prewar apartment in New York City, on 100th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The shabby-chic three bedroom, bursting with books and decorated with hand-me-down furniture and oriental rugs, offers Daum the bohemian lifestyle she'd been seeking in college. But things turn sour when a new roommate moves in and promptly destroys the flat's Woody Allen vibe. Said roommate's crime: covering the charming hardwood floors in his room with baby blue carpeting. The punishment, as Daum shamefully admits: eviction.
With her beloved prewar tarnished by guilt, Daum moves first to a one-bedroom sublet on West 86th, and then, of all places, to Lincoln, Nebraska. To this day, she finds the move to Lincoln a bit of an "enigma," particularly given that she'd been there only once, on a writing assignment. Then again, Daum had harbored childhood fantasies of being Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. Plus, it's hard for a debt-ridden freelance writer to survive in NYC. And so, in "an actual little house on the actual prairie," she manages to spend the next several years relaxing in the countryside while writing a novel a...