Book Review ~ Home Girl by Judith Matloff

Summary ~ Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

After twenty years as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya, and Sudan, Judith Matloff is ready to put down roots and start a family. She leaves Moscow and returns to her native New York City to house-hunt for the perfect spot while her Dutch husband, John, stays behind in Russia with their dog to pack up their belongings. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity and, more important, its affordability, Judith impulsively buys a stately fixer-upper brownstone in the neighborhood.

Little does she know what’s in store. Judith and John discover that their dream house was once a crack den and that “fixer upper” is an understatement. The building is a total wreck: The beams have been chewed to dust by termites, the staircase is separating from the wall, and the windows are smashed thanks to a recent break-in. Plus, the house–crowded with throngs of brazen drug dealers–forms the bustling epicenter of the cocaine trade in the Northeast, and heavily armed police regularly appear outside their door in pursuit of the thugs and crackheads who loiter there.

Thus begins Judith and John’s odyssey to win over the neighbors, including Salami, the menacing addict who threatens to take over their house; MacKenzie, the literary homeless man who quotes Latin over morning coffee; Mrs. LaDuke, the salty octogenarian and neighborhood watchdog; and Miguel, the smooth lieutenant of the local drug crew, with whom the couple must negotiate safe passage. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and they do all they can to carve out a comfortable life. And by the time they experience the birth of a son, Judith and John have even come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms.

Blending her finely honed reporter’s instincts with superb storytelling, Judith Matloff has crafted a wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir about community, home, and real estate. Home Girl is for anyone who has ever longed to go home, however complicated the journey.

I’ll admit that I have never been to Harlem.  I’ve watched the Harlem Globetrotters on T.V. in exhibition games as well as when they were cartoon guest stars on Scooby Doo.  I have watched performances on T.V. that were broadcast from the stage of The Apollo Theatre too.  After reading Judith Matloff’s Home Girl, my interest in Harlem has piqued.  First of all, I did not realize exactly where Harlem was in relation to the Theatre and Garment Districts, Midtown Manhattan and another area I have frequented when in NYC, Soho. 

Home Girl is a retelling of events that happened to a former New Yorker and her Dutch husband John, when she purchases, practically without any idea of what she was getting into, a row-house on a drug infested block in Harlem.  After the rose colored glasses had been yanked off, Judith realized just how much work she and her husband would be in for.  Not only the work and money that would have to go into renovating their dilapidated house, but the work it would take to co-exist with crack dealers and scared, racist neighbors, who weren’t willing to make a difference themselves.

The house eventually recovers from the cancer that had plagued it for too many years.  Judith overcomes her odd feelings of loyalty to the drug dealers on her block and begins attending some community policing program meetings and starts to unite with the neighbors and community.  She finally feels a sense of belonging where, for the first three months after buying her house, she felt like the crazy outsider who didn’t belong.

After the adventure that was Judith and John’s life as foreign corespondents over the last twenty years, followed by the seemingly treacherous times after buying a major fixer-upper in West Harlem, they are faced with the most unknown of all territories, Parenthood!

Home Girl is an enjoyable, fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of author Judith Matloff, her patient and trusting husband, their wonderful dog, their new baby, the house that they resurrected from death’s door and the many dangerous, outrageous and kooky characters on their block that they adopt when they move to West Harlem and a colorful array of tenants in the upstairs and basement apartments of their beloved brownstone.  Judith captures life pre- and post- 9/11 beautifully and in Home Girl’s post 9/11 chapters, the sadness and unity that New York City goes through is described perfectly.

I loved reading about the relationships Judith built with some scary characters that surrounded her and entered her life.  I winced at all the work Judith and John had to do on their house and I breathed a sigh of relief when it all came together for them and knowing they are still living in their home on that “lawless block” shows that a home can be created out of the most undesirable of conditions.  Just ask some of Judith’s squatter-neighbors! 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

A couple of months ago author Judith Matloff joined us here at Planet Books for her first blog guest post.  You can check it out HERE as well as watch the book trailer for Home Girl.  It’s cool to see the people that Judith got to know and wrote about in Home Girl, and she still spends time with.  To learn more about Judith Matloff, check out her web site HERE.   

6 thoughts on “Book Review ~ Home Girl by Judith Matloff

  1. Great review. What a story though! I’ve been to Harlem (years ago) and it’s pretty scary. It’s takes bold moves to make a change sometimes.

  2. I’ve seen a few reviews of this. Have you seen the little video of her home and her “interview” with Salami yet?

    Hi Jen! I actually have that video on Judith’s guest post here on Planet Books. You can check it out by following the link within my review post above.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Sounds like a great read. I’m interested in how they negotiate with the drug dealers. Wow.

    If you’re interested in books with a Harlem setting, check out “Black Flies” by Shannon Burke. I reviewed it on my blog not too long ago.

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