Friday, June 12, 2009

The Big House by George Howe Colt

The Big House:  A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home
by George Howe Colt
Scribner, 2003
319 pages

The title nearly says it all.  Colt gives us a brief history of his well-connected Boston family and the summer home they built on Cape Cod in 1903.  He recounts childhood summers spent at the "big house" and details the family struggle to maintain this vanishing way of life.  Ultimately, the house must be put up for sale. The book is, perhaps, Howe's way of saying good bye.

My thoughts:

The Big House was the May selection for my book group and the original plan was to incorporate my thoughts with the group's overall reaction.  However,  the meeting was cancelled at the last minute, and there will be nothing left if hold my thoughts for another month!

May was a perfect time to read this book, so I was not surprised to see it featured on Barnes & Noble's summer reading table.  It is so evocative of time and place, that it made me nostalgic for a way of life I have never known.  My favorite quote describes the rhythm of a typical day:

"Two weeks in, the days have a comforting sameness to them:  mornings at the Bluff, afternoons at the Big Cove, evenings on the piazza.  We live in our bathing suits.  Our feet, callused from going barefoot all day, no longer cringe on the rocky shore.  Rubbed by sun, wind, and water, our city edges are wearing away.  I feel as weathered as driftwood, as smoothed as sea glass.  When I woke this morning I couldn't remember what day it was."  (page 173)

There are descriptions of sailing races, the big tennis tournament at summer's end, indoor hide-and-seek, and, of course, summer reading and the books found all over the Big House. Summer has a rhythm that Colt compares to an ocean:

"Summers have their own oceanic rhythm.  June, when the water is cool, people are scarce and the bay is empty, is low tide.  In July - as families arrive, the houses fill, the sun ripens - the tides rises.  August - the tennis tournament is in full swing, the bay is full of boats, the Red Sox making their annual run for the pennant - is high tide.  And then the tide slowly ebbs:  the days grow shorter, the nights cool, the Red Sox fade.  There is a surge of false hope on Labor Day weekend, but then the streets and stores are empty, the crowds are gone. Low again." (page 173-174)

As time passes, lifestyles no longer allows for entire summers off, family wealth is somewhat diluted, and it is a struggle to maintain the Big House and it's way of life.  Eventually, the house is put up for sale.  It languishes on the market for several years.

Most potential buyers wanted to subdivide and develop the property. Living in a small, historic village, I could easily relate to the zoning laws, efforts of preservationists, and the negative impact this may have on potential buyers (our town successfully fought off Wal-mart nearly ten years ago).  Eventually, there is a mostly acceptable resolution.

It was also interesting for me to note that Colt is married to writer Anne Fadiman.  Her book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, lead to one of my book club's best discussions ever.  I am also a fan of her essay collection Ex Libris.

This book is a perfect choice for summer non-fiction reading. I found a couple of sections slow-going, and would have really appreciated a map of Cape Cod, but these are just minor complaints.  This virtual trip to Cape Cod was an enjoyable start to my summer reading.

My rating: 4/5  


  1. It sounds wonderful. I shall add it to my towering stack for summer!! Thank you!

  2. I love stories of houses and their families and this one sounds lovely. Thank you for writing about it - I'm definitely going to look for a copy.

  3. Pamela Terry and Edward - This book was wonderful - just steeped in atmosphere! My summer reading stack is getting out of control, too! Funny how that always seems to happen. Thanks so much for visiting.

    Fleurfisher - If you like house and family stories, then this book is for you! There is also a fair amount about general changes that have occurred as the Cape has (over)developed.

  4. I've been wanting to read this one forever, as it's set right here in New England. GReat review.

  5. Sounds great! I haven't heard about it -- thanks for the tip! I loved SCY&YFD.

    I stopped by to tell you thanks for signing up to follow my Rose City Reader blog! Since I zapped all my non-blogger subscribers through blogger idiocy, I really appreciate you signing up.

  6. I don't normally read non-fiction but this does sound good. I like the new pic in your header.

  7. I really like that passage about the rhythm of summer. I'm always on the lookout for non-fiction suggestions, so I'll keep this one in mind.

  8. Just seeing the picture on the cover makes me want to nose around the house. I enjoy reading nostalgic books and how life "used to be". The passage you quoted was lovely. Definitely a book to pick up for summer reading.

  9. Diane - Than you! This book would probably be even better for you since it's set in 'your neck of the woods'. Summer is the perfect time to read it!

    Rose City Reader - This might be a good choice next time you're looking for non-fiction. I've been stopping by your blog for a couple months now and like it quite a lot. Zapping your subscribers sounds like a mistake I'd make - lol!

    Dar - It was past time to change the picture. The old one was early spring! I'm going to try and change it more often this summer - glad you like it!

  10. Nymeth - Those were my favorite passages in the book. Summer, the tide, and baseball all joined together seemed perfect!

    Icedream - It's been a long time since I've gotten such a feeling of nostalgia from a book. I would have loved to explore that house with all it's nooks and crannies!

  11. You wrote a great review.I loved the passages you included.

  12. Vasilly,
    Thanks. The quotes were on a two page interlude near the middle, called Midsummer. That section was so beautiful, I read it several times!


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