Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
In the Dream House is a cross-genre text that incorporates elements of memoir and nonfiction. In it, Carmen Maria Machado uses a series of narrative vignettes to chronicle the relationship between herself and an unnamed woman. They meet through a friend while Machado, a writer, is working on her MFA at the University of Iowa. The unnamed woman is a writer, too; she’s just moved to the Midwest to try to go to the University of Iowa for an MFA of her own, and the two hit it off immediately. Machado is instantly taken with the woman and is sad to learn that she still has a girlfriend—Val—in New York. The woman assures her that the relationship with Val is open, and so it’s perfectly fine to act on their mutual attraction, as long as they don’t fall in love with each other.
As the two spend more time together, their connection deepens. It eventually becomes clear to both women that this is more than just a casual involvement, and shortly after they take their first road trip together, the two confess their mutual love. After a conversation with Val, the woman shares two significant pieces of news: she’s been accepted into an MFA program in Bloomington, Indiana (where she and Val will live together), and Val is willing to allow the two of them to continue their relationship on more serious terms if they choose. When the woman and Val go house hunting in Bloomington, Carmen accompanies them. As they view properties, it fleetingly occurs to her that her ultimate fantasy is for the three of them to end up in one merged polyamorous relationship.
Before the woman begins her program in Indiana, she and Carmen take side jobs together grading standardized tests. It’s here that Carmen sees her first glimpse of the woman’s outsized temper. Carmen meets someone crying in the bathroom, and she sits down to listen to her tearfully recount her trauma. The woman, furious at her inability to get in touch with Carmen during this time, flies into an unexpected rage.
When Carmen and the woman take their second road trip, fresh on the heels of this incident, the dynamic between them is very hot and cold. They travel around the Northeast, visiting Val, attending a friend’s wedding, and meeting each other’s parents for the first time. With each stop, the woman’s behavior becomes increasingly volatile. After a particularly bad fight at the woman’s childhood home in Florida, she grips Carmen’s arm so tightly that she leaves a bruise. Carmen realizes there’s been a fundamental shift in their relationship and gently confronts the woman about the incident later that day. When Carmen reveals the bruise, the woman is visibly upset by the consequences of her actions and apologizes. Afterward, Carmen sees a tense interaction between the woman’s parents, suggesting that their relationship, too, is fraught.
As the start of the woman’s MFA program draws near, Carmen drives her to the chosen house in Bloomington—the titular “Dream House”—to help her move in. Shortly thereafter, the woman calls to let Carmen know that she’s broken up with Val for good. She’s all-in: she wants Carmen, and Carmen reciprocates her feelings. Val returns to New York, though the three promise to remain friends, and Carmen and the woman enter into a monogamous relationship for the first time.
As their relationship builds, the woman’s temper grows, and the extent of her abuse magnifies. Carmen finds herself yielding more and more to the woman for the sake of keeping the peace, and Carmen begins to notice physical manifestations of her...
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unhappiness as she gives control of herself over to another. After the two have a disagreement on the phone, the woman angrily breaks up with Carmen for the first time. Right away, though, the woman calls back in tears, and within the hour they’re back together.
Soon, they’re fighting in public places as frequently as they do behind closed doors. Carmen yields further to compensate for the woman’s growing rage, and when the woman confesses that she doesn’t really remember her behavior during her violent episodes, Carmen begins to research symptoms of schizophrenia. She gives the woman an ultimatum: if she doesn’t go to therapy, the relationship is over. The woman goes, but only for a short time. Carmen stays in the relationship, despite the ultimatum.
When the woman gets into the MFA program in Iowa City, she excitedly begins to plan their cohabitation. Before they move in together, though, the woman tells Carmen some difficult news: she’s fallen in love with somebody else. The woman assures Carmen that they can get through it, but the relationship begins to noticeably weaken in the aftermath of her disclosure. Eventually, it becomes clear that they can’t overcome the woman’s feelings for someone else, and the relationship is over.
The day of the breakup, Carmen has an accident at home. When her roommates, John and Laura, find her, tearful and bleeding, they patch her up, and she spills all the details of what she’s been through. Her friends rally around her, distracting her with parties and trips out of town. After a weekend in Chicago, the woman reaches out to Carmen: she thinks she’s made a mistake. She invites Carmen to her hotel in Iowa City. Against her better judgment, Carmen goes. They sleep together one more time, but don’t reconcile. When the woman leaves Carmen a series of erratic voicemails shortly after, Carmen blocks her number and begins to move on.
As Carmen adjusts to life as a single person, she and Val begin to communicate regularly as they process their shared experience. Ultimately, they become very close. When Carmen drives out to San Diego to attend a writer’s workshop, Val flies out to meet her, and they drive back across the country together. As the series of narrative vignettes draw to a close, we learn the author’s self-described “twist ending”: she and Val are now happily married and living together in Pennsylvania.
These stories are presented in an essentially linear way, but interspersed between them are the elements of another text entirely: a carefully-researched overview of the documented history of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships, as well as a diversely curated history of cultural references critiquing dynamics of intimate power. Machado dissects the extant literature in detail, emphasizing the absence of the queer narrative—and especially the lesbian narrative—from the collective social understanding of intimate partner violence.
By quantity, these essays constitute as much of the book as Machado’s own personal experience does. Per the prologue and the afterword, her motivation in weaving this secondary text through her own story is to begin the construction of an archive that, at the time of publication, does not yet exist.