Book Review: The Door by Magda Szabo

The Room is a novel about two people growing together and finding love in unexpected ways. And I don’t mean squishy feely romance love but the kind of love that comes from years and years of kind and cruel gestures, outbursts, opinions, and two people learning, but more often failing, to read intention and emotion.

Magda is not only the author but the writer and narrator of the story. It’s semi-autobiographical, about her 20-year long relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. Emerence is in some ways the kind of old lady I’d like to be someday. Strong, passionate, an excellent judge of character, able to comfort and cleave with words, and well respected in her community, Emerence has a complicated past, shrouded in years and secrets.

Set in Hungary, the novel tells stories about Emerence and Magda, each story revealing a bit more about both women and all tinged with regret and anger, as by the time of writing, Emerence has died horribly and Magda is confronting her part in it.

This book made me angry because I’ve thought about what might happen to me. I might get hit by a car or trapped in a mob or shot in a random attack. I might get very old and feeble and lose my mind or the use of my body. My perfect death is quiet, painless, and predictable, with my dignity and autonomy mostly intact and all loose ends tied up. I don’t want friends and family forced to put me up in a home or watch me waste money and effort on palliative care I’d prefer not to need. Given this and also the constant urge in activism to listen to the needs and wants of a group before deciding what’s best for them, I read in horror as, with all the best intentions, Magda denies this woman, this almost mother figure who adores and trusts her, the dignity of the death she chooses.

Emerence has lived through wars, regime changes, and dozens of people’s lives and deaths. She is purposefully oblivious to political movement, religious edicts, world powers, or anything outside of what she, all by herself, is capable of. She hides Jews, Communists, Fascists, and stray cats with equal care and indifference and shows the kind of harsh mercy you would expect of a strong peasant woman with a long life of bitter disappointments behind her. She learns to trust one last time and, the poor woman, is betrayed one last time.

The Door is a character study on two women: one who knows everything about everyone and doesn’t care a whit, and one who doesn’t even know herself and cares far too much about what people think. Though one eventually failed the other, I feel hopeful that lessons learned stick with Magda and help her capture and embody some of what made Emerence so critical, so good for her. And of course, when I say that I mean that I hope some of the lessons stick with me, that I can capture a little of the fierce old woman.