Home Girl – Judith Matloff

Title: Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block
Author: Judith Matloff
ISBN: 1400065267
Pages: 304
Release Date: June 24, 2008
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

From the dust jacket:

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: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block is for anyone who has ever longed to go home, however complicated the journey.

I usually don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been making it a point to read more of it lately. When Julie at FSB Associates offered me the chance to review it, I was really excited – here was a memoir that seemed to have all the elements of the fiction books I so enjoy reading. It was fun and exciting, humorous and enjoyable, but also altogether shocking! I couldn’t believe the obstacles Judith and her husband had to surmount in order to simply make their new home habitable.

I read somewhere that the best memoirs are written by people who have previous writing experience. I think that definitely holds true for Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block. The book is suspenseful enough to keep the reader hooked but the need to build that suspense doesn’t get in the way of the quality of the writing. It is definitely well-written and easy to read.

I admired Matloff’s bravery at buying a house in, basically, the worst part of Harlem, but I was sometimes surprised at her level of denial. I am fastidious about checking every detail and making sure everything is ok, so every time she rationalized something to herself, I inwardly cringed – I knew something bad was about to happen. In a fiction book, this would probably bother me. But for some reason, in a non-fiction book, it didn’t. I felt like it spoke to the author’s sincere and ardent desire to make a home, no matter the location or surroundings. She had to make the best of what she had and could afford, which in New York City, wasn’t much. But Matloff turned her home around, and arguably helped turn her area of Harlem around; it is an incredible feat to read about and it took a lot of bravery and courage.

One thing I really appreciated about the book was Matloff’s honesty. On the rough days, she admits she may have made a mistake in buying the house. When she is scared, she says so but also bravely faces them head on. In the end, she and her husband realize that buying the house was a great thing, but it is nice to see her being honest about it throughout the renovation process.

I really enjoyed Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block and definitely recommend it to anyone who think the premise sounds interesting. Usually, non-fiction books take me a long time to read because I find them to be more difficult than my regular fiction. However, that wasn’t the case with this book; it flowed smoothly, and I think most people will find it reads just as quickly as any fiction book. It’s definitely a worthwhile read!


  1. I am so excited to read this one! I too sometimes have problems getting through non-fiction but when they sound as good as this, it shouldn’t be a problem! Luckily I have a copy, the only problem is when to read it!

  2. I’ve heard about this one as well. It sounds really good! I enjoyed your review

  3. I really enjoyed this book too. I read it back in May and was one of my first reviews on my blog, posted here.

  4. Thanks for the review. I love memoirs and this one sounds really good.

  5. I liked one memoir I read, and I think I should read this one also 🙂

  6. Great review Swapna. I’ve seen this one around quite a bit lately-another added to the wish list.

  7. This sounds like a great book! I’ve seen a lot of good reviews for it, and I really enjoyed yours. Definitely adding this one to my list!

    Diary of an Eccentric

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