The Big House

The Big House was an impulse buy from Brotherhood Books (temporarily out of action after their warehouse flooded), based on the appealing watercolour cover and the subtitle: A Century In The Life of an American Summer Home. I have a weakness for houses and architecture generally, a totally untutored weakness I should add, which finds expression in shows like Grand Designs and Restoration Australia and even House Hunters International. One of my favourite books is one I inherited from Sandra Eterović, called How Buildings Learn, a fascinating, lavishly illustrated study of the way houses and other buildings can adapt and morph over time... but I digress.

The Big House is in some ways a story of privilege -- the lovingly detailed history of one wealthy Boston family's beach house, a rambling weatherbeaten construction of (I think) nineteen rooms, surprising closets, random passageways, servants' bedrooms, a big sprawling house filled with family detritus, books and clothes and moth-eaten furniture and pennants and a tennis court... I must admit I began this book thinking, it's all right for some, mate

But as the chapters unspooled, revealing family tragedy as well as privilege, and culminating in the disclosure that the family could no longer afford to keep the house (land tax alone was crippling, let alone the expenses of upkeep on a massive building that was literally beginning to fall apart), I became caught up in the struggle to hold onto the property, a place that kept the family secrets and the family memories.

It took me a long time to wander through The Big House and it ended up overlapping with Swann's Way, with which it shared some striking, perhaps intentional parallels. I'm sure Colt deliberately set out to emulate, in his painstaking descriptions of individual rooms, the cove, the woods, historic boat races and tennis tournaments, the loving detail that Proust brings to his own childhood memories of summers past. If Colt doesn't quite reach the heights of Proust, he does at least provide something closer to a narrative, in the story of the battle to save the house from demolition. The tone is definitely elegaic, a melancholy farewell to a vanished way of life.

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