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Hedy Reviews “The Big House”

By Library Staff

The author is from a formerly very rich Boston Brahmin family and spent 42 summers at this house on Buzzard’s Bay at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  The house had been built in 1903 and by the early 2000s, it had been inherited by several members of the family who were widely dispersed and not as rich as they once were.  Nobody wanted to take on repair, maintenance, and taxes on this huge place with its gray Sackett board walls stuffed with eelgrass insulation pockmarked with mouse and squirrel nests with three stoves in the kitchen, only one of which worked–sort of.  So the author and his family are taking one last vacation at what they called the “Big House”, and Colt is SO nostalgic about its architecture, its history, and its culture.  He observes everything so closely and writes with humor and sensitivity about the most mundane things–like tennis balls:

“Playing tennis with a wealthy Washingtonian, my cousin Henry was appalled when, halfway through the match, his host opened a fresh can of balls, explaining, ‘We never play more than two sets per can.’ (To a Bostonian, this seems as profligate as William Randolph Hearst’s practice of having his San Simeon table set with new jars of ketchup, mustard, and pickles at every meal.) Henry had been raised on the Big House system, in which, every time we play, we must sort through the two dozen cans of old balls that sit, Stonehenge-like, on the chest in the utility room, holding each ball at eye level and dropping it until we come up with three that are acceptable. ‘Here’s a decent one!’ one of us will announce joyfully, as the floor thumps with the sound of bouncing balls. ‘I’ve got one here!’ says another.  But are the duds thrown out? Of course not. Back they go into their cans to await their next trial. ‘After all,’ points out a sardonic friend, ‘you never know when they might come back to life.’”

Colt doesn’t shy away from the mental illness, despair, and alcoholism present at times in the Big House, but all in all, it’s a “love letter to the past”.  Colt said in an interview, “The book is about loss, but it’s also about change. My family’s always been reluctant to change, but now we’ve found out everybody is stronger and more resilient as a result.”

Reading “The Big House”, which was a National Book Award Finalist, made me think fondly of the place I most call “home” and of what things I treasure that have little or no value to anyone else and why that is.  It made me appreciate more of what was near at hand and that was a good feeling. Those who like reading literary memoirs will love “The Big House”.

By the way, George Howe Colt is married to Anne Fadiman, the author of another book I think highly of: “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” 306.461 FA

974.492 CO “The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home” by George Howe Colt, 2003, 327 pages