Reader’s Journal: The Big House

For some reason, writing about this book is a struggle for me. It wasn’t a struggle to read, although I did get bored about 60 pages from the end and decided not to finish it. It left me cold, and I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to determine why.

I picked this book because I thought it would be interesting to read about a world unfamiliar to me. I’ve been through and around parts of New England, but I’ve never been to the coast, never been there in the summer, never had the luxury and/or regularity of summering at the same place year in and year out. For one thing, in Texas, although plenty of people have homes in Padre or Galveston or at Mustang Island, when people say “summer home” (and really, they don’t ever, ever say that), they mean “lake house.” Here in Georgia, while “summer home” might mean a quaint place on the Georgia coast or St. Simon’s or Tybee Island, what they generally mean is “condo in the Florida panhandle, possibly a timeshare.” What’s clear is that coastline is synonymous with “vacation” to people all over the map.

New Englanders raised summering at the coast to an art form back in the late Nineteenth century, and George Howe Colt, author of The Big House, does a great job laying out this history for the reader and explaining how is family was a part of it all. As a person who has no real extended family, I’m fascinated by large families with their vacations and reunions and traditions. Or perhaps I should say, as a person not close to her extended family, a very kind, clannish (read: Irish) bunch with a solid family tradition–drinking and attending Mass. (Let me mention here briefly that Mr. Colt’s family was vehemently prejudiced against the Irish, which he seems to find appalling in a politically correct sort of way, but also slightly amusing, which, I think, is one of the brief if unintended flashes of real honesty in the book.) I was no more a part of that world than I am of Mr. Colt’s New England, but my family is familiar where his is not.

Mr. Colt tells the story of The Big House and how it came to be built, of he and his many, many cousins and the games they played, of sailing and fishing in the bay, and of his own family history. Beautifully written, the book is curiously cold. More than once (indeed, probably more than a hundred times over), Mr. Colt reminds the reader of the reservation and refinement of old Boston families. Money is never discussed (although Mr. Colt, I suppose in trying to break that tradition and show how much more enlightened he is than his family, discusses it plenty), illness is shrouded, family misfortune beneath consideration, let alone words. Ultimately, this reserve flattens his family portrait, even as he describes his Grandmother’s numerous nervous breakdowns, or the horrifying story of his Aunt Sandy, who was diagnosed with cancer and not told. Yes, you heard me. They didn’t tell her she had cancer. Not even when she was wasted and dying. Mr. Colt’s confusion and anger over this does come through, but in a roundabout way he spends more time explaining and covering the family’s actions than questioning his own feelings. Psychologically, it’s rather interesting, but strange to behold.

The other issue I had with this book was simply this: I am not Mr. Colt’s audience. Most likely, neither are many of you. Just as one can tour San Simeon and still not completely understand what must have driven William Randolph Hearst to build it, one can read The Big House and come away without any real understanding of the family who inhabited it. Mr. Colt talks about a lot of people and families as if the whole world knows these people, and I am sure he assumes they do. Many are the names of old Boston and New England families, some recognizable as captains of industry and founding fathers and great American philosophers and philanthropists–but as many are not. He writes about place in the same manner, as though any person reading his book is as intimately familiar with the geography as he is.

And finally, he has the boorish (or really, bore-ish), derisive pride of someone both lauding his family’s position and mocking it at the same time. This is a trick that can only be pulled off by people who are remarkably self-involved yet lack self-awareness. He spends a great deal of time letting you know who he is (or who his family is), and then assuring you it’s no big deal. I suppose, in the end, I got bored with standing outside while Mr. Colt opened and closed the window shades. Telling a family history is a tricky business, to be sure. Even the most skilled writer (and Mr. Colt is skilled–he really does write beautifully) can suck the life out of a story just by telling it and refusing to own it.

*image from Powell’s

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