Monday, October 19, 2009

Relative Reads Review - The Big House

I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send me some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek.

The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt (recommended by Aunt Rhoda)
published 2003
327 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt returned for one last stay with his wife and children. This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dormers that watched over weddings, divorces, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, breakdowns, and love affairs for five generations interweaves Colt's final visit with memories of a lifetime of summers. Run-down yet romantic, the Big House stands not only as a cherished reminder of summer's ephemeral pleasures but also as a powerful symbol of a vanishing way of life.

My thoughts:

This is quite a book. On the surface the story of one family's history with a house on the Cape, it is really an exploration of a way of life; a chronicle of the loves and losses of a remarkable and yet ordinary family; a history lesson on a time a place unfamiliar to many living today.

Colt's family circumstances are quite different than mine, and yet his book reminded me of the summers I spent with my family, in a little resort on a lake in Minnesota. We've been going to the same place for over 20 years now, and it feels just as much home as Colt's house on the ocean. It also made me think of my grandparents homes, in Iowa and Minnesota, and how I loved to play and hide in their nooks and crannies. The Big House, as his summer home was called, was exactly the kind of place I would have loved as a kid - honestly, the kind of place I would love now - full of rooms and corners to explore and secrets to learn.

"There were rooms with four doors, each leading to a different room. There were doors one opened only to find other doors behind them. There were closets deep as mine shafts, and strange, wasted spaces that served no apparent purpose. And as well as I knew the house, there always seemed to be new hiding places I'd never thought of before."

I enjoyed Colt's writing - he was able to make me see the sights and smell the smells, and feel like I was experiencing life in The Big House right along with him. I found myself becoming quite attached to the House, to the point of getting anxious when the family began negotiations to sell it. In a very real way, the House felt like a living, breathing entity, and I was an invested in its story as I was in the story of the family.

"Inside, we are enveloped by an unmistakable smell, one that might be difficult for even the most expert chemist to break down, but that seems to be composed, in various measures, of salt, wind, dust, sunlight, moonlight, sand, pine, mildew, mothballs, leather, old books, disintegrating bricks, and dead bluebottle flies. It is a smell so evocative and precious, so irresistibly redolent of both life and decay, that I wonder why it has never been bottled and sold as perfume."

Of course, one of my favorite chapters was Rain, which was an homage to the books of The Big House. I love browsing through people's personal libraries, and wondering what their books say about them. I love houses that are filled with books, and so Colt's descriptions of the various bookshelves were a joy to read.

"Summer reading is different. There's no agenda, nothing assigned, nothing mandatory. One reads at one's own pace - a few pages now and then, or a sudden all-day binge. Summer house libraries are a hodgepodge. Their contents tend to arrive as haphazardly as flotsam washing ashore. Some are refugees from winter homes; others are house presents; others are brought by visitors and abandoned. One doesn't weed out summer house libraries as easily as one does a winter collection; the books belong to a larger number of people, no one of whom can be entrusted with the responsibility. The result is an eclectic collection, highbrow mixing with lowbrow, accumulated over many years. 'Summer house libraries are like trifle,' Aunt Ellen once observed. 'They're in layers.' "

I completely enjoyed this book, both for the story it told and the memories it kindled. It is a book to be savored, and I can envision myself reading it again because, like The Big House itself, I'm sure there are still more doors to be found. Highly recommended.

Finished: 10/17/09
Source: on loan from Aunt Rhoda
Rating: 9/10


mar10123 said...

. . . the cubbyhole . . . the chute . . . the shower in the basement . . . the sunporch in the apartment . . . the den . . . and the CLOSETS!

bermudaonion said...

I love a book that causes me to get emotionally involved. Great review, Aunt Rhoda!

Diane said...

Terrific Review. I've owned this book for a while but have not read it. Lucky you to be from a family of readers. Not me!

mat10123 said...

Glad you have been able to get to another on your Relative Reads list.

Connie said...

This Relative Reads thing is so cool. If I started doing it, though, I would be reading 100% vampire books.

I love the sound of this book, and it sounds like just the thing for a chilly day. Thanks! :)

Zibilee said...

This sounds like a cozy book that I could curl up with on the couch and read all afternoon. I think I would like the parts about the books in the house the best as well. I am glad that you liked it so much.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I'd love to see what else Aunt Rhoda has on her shelves - THE BIG HOUSE is one of my favorite books; it's not that old (6 or 7 years?) and I've read it 3 times; a wonderful personal memoir!