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Built by Colt's great-grandfather one hundred years ago on a deserted Cape Cod peninsula, the house is a local landmark (neighboring children know it as the Ghost House): a four-story, eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, sloped roofs, and dormers. The emotional home of the Colt family, the Big House has watched over five weddings, four divorces, and three deaths, along with countless anniversaries, birthday parties, nervous breakdowns, and love affairs. Beaten by wind and rain, insulated by seaweed, it is both romantic and run-down, a symbol of the faded glory of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy.
With a mixture of amusement and affection, Colt traces the rise and fall of this tragicomic social class while memorably capturing the essence of summer's ephemeral pleasures: sailing, tennis, fishing, rainy-day reading. Time seems to stand still in a summer house, and for the Colts the Big House always seemed an unchanging place in a changing world. But summer draws to a close, and the family must eventually say good-bye.
Elegant and evocative, The Big House is both magical and sad, a gift to anyone who holds cherished memories of summer.
Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Nonfiction.
Adam Hochschild From the beautiful opening pages onward, you know you are in the hands of a masterful writer — observant, subtle, eloquent at evoking the memories and feelings that rise up when our adult selves and childhood memories meet. But The Big House is more than that; George Howe Colt brings to life several generations of an entire extended family, and the reader, like someone growing from childhood to adulthood and like the reader of a fine novel, gradually learns that this book's charmed, alluring world is far more complex than it first appears.
Alec Wilkinson The Big House is about the long, slow separation from the beautiful past — in this case a shingled house by the ocean, which Colt's ancestors built and his family occupied in the summer for generations. He writes gracefully, with restraint and deep feeling, and his book is a rare accomplishment.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc This book is a true thing — a careful opening into the rooms of origin, a meditation on loss and loving, a tender exploration of the mysteries of family. That George Howe Colt is a poet makes us especially lucky to be privy to his keen and generous company. In the fullness of a narrative fantastic with stories of his extraordinary ancestry, he honors what is precious without sentimentality, expresses intimacy without self-absorption, his wisdom rooted in humor and humility. I read it by my father's bedside as he lay dying, and felt safe inside this special book. Even more, I felt the steadying wonder of life.
The doors that are always open have been closed and locked. The windows are shut tight. The shades are drawn. No water runs from the faucets. The toaster - which in the best of times works only if its handle is pinned under the weight of a second, even less functional toaster - is unplugged. The kitchen cupboards are empty except for a stack of napkins, a box of sugar cubes, and eight cans of beer. The porch furniture - six white plastic chairs, two green wooden tables - has been stacked in the dining room. The croquet set, the badminton equipment, the tennis net, and the flag are behind closet doors. The dinghy is turtled on sawhorses in the barn, the oars angled against the wall. The roasted-salt scent of August has given way to the stale smell of mothballs, ashes, mildew.
Here and there are traces of last summer: a striped beach towel tossed on the washing machine, a half-empty shampoo bottle wedged in the wooden slats of the outdoor shower, a fishing lure on the living room mantel, a half-burned log in the fireplace, a sprinkling of sand behind the kitchen door. Dead hornets litter the windowsills. A drowned mouse floats in the lower-bedroom toilet. The most recent entry in the guest book was made five months ago. The top newspaper in the kindling pile is dated September 29. The ship's clock in the front hall has stopped at 2:45, but whether that was A.M. or P.M. no one can tell.
After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation. They call it the off-season, as if there were a switch in the cellar, next to the circuit breakers, that one flipped to plunge the house from brimming to empty, warm to cold, noisy to silent, light to dark. Outside, too, the world has changed color, from blues, yellows, and greens to grays and browns. The tangle of honeysuckle, Rosa rugosa, and poison ivy that lapped at the porch is a skein of bare branches and vines. The lawn is hard as tundra, brown as burlap. The Benedicts' house next door, hidden from view when I was last here, is visible through the leafless trees. The woods give up their secrets: old tennis balls, an errant Frisbee, a lost tube of sunblock, a badminton birdie. Out in the bay, the water is the color of steel and spattered with whitecaps; without the presence of boats to lend perspective, the waves look ominously large. On the stony beach, the boardwalk - a set of narrow planks we use to enter the water without spraining our ankles on the algae-slicked rocks - has been piled above the tide line, beyond the reach, we hope, of storms.
A summer house in winter is a forlorn thing. In its proper season, every door is unlocked, every window wide open. People, too, are more open in summer, moving through the house and each other's life as freely as the wind. Their schools and offices are distant, their guard is down, their feet are bare. Now as I walk from room to room, shivering in my parka, I have the feeling I'm trespassing, as if I've sneaked into a museum at night. Without people to fill it, the house takes on a life of its own. Family photographs seem to breathe, their subjects vivid and laughing and suspended at the most beautiful moments of their youths: my father in his army uniform, about to go off to World War II; my aunt in an evening gown, in a shot taken for a society benefit not long before her death at twenty-eight; my grandfather as a Harvard freshman, poised to win an ice hockey game; my cousins in the summer of 1963, gathered on the sunny lawn. I am older than all of them, even though many are now dead.
In this still house, where is the summer hiding? Perhaps in the mice whose droppings pepper the couch, the bats that brood in the attic eaves, the squirrels that nest in the stairwell walls. They are silent now, but we will hear and see them - and the offspring to which they will soon give birth - in a few months. For if the house is full of memory, it is equally full of anticipation. Dormant life lies everywhere, waiting to be picked up where it left off, like an old friendship after a long absence: that towel ready to be slung over a sweaty shoulder, that tennis ball to be thrown into the air, those chairs to be set out on the porch, that fishing lure to be cast into the bay, that guest book to be inscribed with a day in June. Even on the coldest winter morning, this house holds within it, like a voluptuous flower within a hard seed, the promise of summer.
Excerpted from The Big House by George Howe Colt Copyright © 2001 by Simon & Schuster. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
II The Family Tree
IV The Discovery of Cape Cod
VIII The North and South Faces
IX The Barn
X Plain Living
XIV Hidden House
XV The Big Cove
XVI Missing Cards
XVIII The White Elephant
XIX Full House
Epilogue: Indian Summer
Notes on Sources
Posted March 25, 2013
Posted March 3, 2013
Posted March 29, 2013
Posted November 18, 2012
Posted June 28, 2012
Posted May 9, 2010
The Big House
A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home
By George Howe Colt
No, not everyone has Bostonian blue blood running through their veins or the ability to summer at a family estate on Cape Cod but Colt adopts us all with his engaging prose.
The author whispers of family secrets and we slide in beside him into a reading nook on a rainy afternoon with the background of patter on the roof and the tinny drips into strategically placed buckets. We can hear that burr of the old fashioned phone Colt so loves. He describes a century's worth of cast off accumulated in the old barn causing us to trip back our own memory lane, "Hey, I remember that collection of jazz records in my grandma's attic."
When fortunes dwindle, we root for the underdog.don't let that grand house built of blood, sweat, joy and tears be razed from the earth or worse.turned into condos.
In the end it is our story. The story of those of us who have been here for generations or who have just arrived; those who persevere and believe in the American dream. "It's a great gift that in this house everyone can be alone, off doing things they want to, and yet all be together under one roof."
Posted August 14, 2009
I enjoyed reading the book. It brought back memories of driving to the Cape. I learned alot about the early Bostonian Families and how they built their houses and about all their neighbors.
I liked seeing the house through the younger families thoughts and how they felt about their parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
it is a good book club book, lots to talk about
Posted November 2, 2008
Great, touching story, wonderful writing, rich imagery. I enjoyed the book all the way through! The only [small] criticism I have is I wish the author had provided some photos, particularly of the house itself. Since the characters are real people, I can understand a reluctance to offer pictures of relatives [living or passed on], but to see the house, its surrounding property and even old photos of the Cape would have been a delightful addition... hence my 4 star rating overall.<BR/><BR/>A wonderful effort Mr. Colt!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2008
I agree - the first few chapters were interesting. The author told about his immediate family and their quest for a last family vacation in the Big House. But from then on, it was ridiculous. If I had to read one more story about how rich his family was, or how many famous people they knew, or how they all had yachts and country club memberships, I was going to hurl. I had to put it down midway through, and it's been a very long time since I was unable to finish a book. If you're familiar with the Cape and/or this family, you're in for a delightful read. Otherwise, it might remind you of the society pages of your local newspaper.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 7, 2008
The first three chapters lure you into believeing the book is about the house, it is really about a way of life- the old money 'it is gone, only their good name remains', the pretense and facade of a life that many in his family could not relinquish, and those that moved forward with the times- welcoming 'outsiders' into their lives, were no longer welcome andor no longer chose to visit. The windows with no rooms attached, the stairs leading nowhere, things not being as they seem- that was his family. But, you have to get well into the book before the dark side is revealed, slowly, chapter by chapter. It is a way of life drowned in secrets and alcohol, and best read about as the past rather than lived.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 28, 2007
The story behind the text is wonderful: a nostalgic tale of a family's summer home being put up for sale. The first three chapters are nice, fairly easy to get through. But come the fourth chapter, so many names have been mentioned, let alone cities I'm assuming are on/near the Cape [I've never been there, but the back cover drew me in. I ended up, unsuccessfully, trying to read the book with a map of the Cape and surrounding towns next to me], that it just became impossible. If you're familiar with the area, be my guest and read on, but otherwise, it's a disappointment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2005
A superb read, for anyone who has ever experienced the joys of regular visits to a summer house. Memorable and poignant memoir of growing up by the sea in summer, family life and life's lessons . . . pure enjoyment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 27, 2005
The Big House is full of love and joy, and yes, even a little sadness, but it is a very satisfying read. George Colt is a generous human being that gives full credit to other members of his family and fully admits some of his past incorrect thinking. It really is an absolutely lovely book to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 6, 2005
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As a Brahmin child who currently summers on Wings Neck, the book was very nostalgic. Everything that Colt writes about could not be any truer. The lifestyle is still very much the same. The Big House does exist! It is the same as pictured on the cover of the novel. A great summer read for anyone (especially someone who summers on Cape Cod!).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 3, 2004
A very lovely read that brought to mind memories of my family's (much less impressive) summer home in the northern Catskill Mountains. In some places, the genealogical details become a little tedious for the outsider, but it's easy to skim over those parts. I might have felt a greater connection to the author's family and the house if the book included some pictures of the house and surrounding areas, and reproductions of the photographs mentioned in the text. I'm not sure, for example, if the watercolor on the cover is actually the house in question or just an artist's conception. Still . . . much to savor here and very readable; I bought the book on a Tuesday and finished it that Saturday.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2004
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I like the fact that it gave a great historical account of the cape cod region, of which I am fascinated by, intertwined with a family history. The author painted a vivid picture of the ideal summer vacation for a child or even an adult. The archetectural items were of great interest to me as well. I could empathize with the author about how he felt about that house.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 3, 2004
This book offered great insight into a world in which I could only imagine living - who knew that 'summer' was a verb. Even though I might not be like all the characters, (or necessarily like them) I consider that a positive. I thought that made it a very good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 12, 2003
The author describes events from his childhood that seemed normal to him at the time, but now, reflecting back as an adult writer, he sees how odd and genuinely funny much of it was. I laughed all the way through this excellent book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 2, 2010
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Posted November 12, 2008
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