Book Review: IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado

For a memoir about gaslighting and nightmarish domestic abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House has a shockingly lucid, powerful core. Told through small chapters that each explore facets of “the dream house” (the home Machado shared with her abusive female partner), this book pushes the boundaries of real and unreal, personal and archetypal. By talking openly about her experience of queer abuse, Machado forwards a new and necessary concept of queer humanity: one where we finally find a middle ground between viewing queer people as only deviants or only saints. (Speaking from my personal lesbian experience: we are neither.) In the Dream House scared me and soothed me, educated me and entertained me. With this book, Machado sets ambitious goals for herself as a writer and knocks every single one out of the park. In the Dream House is an instant classic. Don’t miss it!

You can read my full review below.


In the Dream House Cover
cover description: A gothic-style illustration of a woman staring out from the attic of a dilapidated house. A shadowy figure stands on the porch.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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  • publisher: Graywolf Press (distributed by Macmillan)
  • publication date: November 5, 2019
  • length: 272 pages

I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.

–from In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

As a kid, I hoarded books of fairy tales from all over the world, reading and re-reading them, horrified and enthralled, until the pages fell out of the binding.

In my adult reading life, no book I’ve read has been more reminiscent of the primal experience of reading fairy tales than Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, her memoir of her abuse by another woman–the first woman she’d dated since coming out as bisexual.

Like magic, Machado weaves her specific story into an archetype, referencing Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature in the footnotes. (These footnotes are one of the greatest pleasures of the book, in fact.)

The titular dream house is the house where Machado and her abusive partner lived together–or is it? At times it seems to be something much larger and more liminal, terrifying.

Machado comes at the dream house from dozens of tiny angles chapters, each named after the motif she explores within it:

  • Dream House as Not a Metaphor”
  • Dream House as Lesbian Cult Classic”
  • Dream House as Haunted Mansion”

The story unfolds at a dreamy pace: the lush, erotic early days of the relationship, the sour terror when it started going wrong, the shattered and isolated feeling of recovering from something so many people refuse to believe exists.

The myth of queer people as perfect is a poisonous side effect of the fight for LGBTQ rights: in order to correct an image of our community as lascivious, predatory, and emotionally stunted, a funhouse mirror image of purity, benevolence, and emotional competence was created.

Unfortunately, the new image was just as unrealistic as the old one, and it has left queer people like Machado with nowhere to turn if another queer person harms them. To talk about abuse is to harm our community, the thinking goes–except, as Machado points out, that those victims of abuse are just as much a part of the queer community as their abusers.

About halfway through the book, Machado writes:

Fantasy is, I think, the defining cliche of female queerness. No wonder we joke about U-Hauls on the second date. To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.

That dream of a queer woman’s paradise, “punctured” (as she puts it in the next paragraph) by the reality of abuse, haunts the entirety of In the Dream House. Though I don’t share Machado’s experience of queer abuse, I’ve bumped up against the limitations of that dream myself so many times in other ways. Queer people will never be seen as fully human until we can be understood as flawed in the way that all humans are flawed.

In the end, after surviving the abuse, Machado did fall in love and marry someone new and wonderful, a fairy tale happy ending to match her fairy tale trials. The glimpses she gives us of this loving future/present make In the Dream House as cathartic and satisfying as it is painful and difficult, a Cinderella story with teeth.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking about In the Dream House; there’s simply nothing else like it out there right now. Please, please read it. ★★★★★


I purchased my own copy of In the Dream House and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.