“It’s the highest of compliments to say that a memoir reads like fiction, and Alexandra Aldrich accomplishes this in her phenomenal debut. With swift, haunting prose, she breathes new life into the Astor clan.”
“A beautifully-rendered family saga—full of fires, affairs, aristocrats and illegitimate children. At the center is an endearing heroine, whose eccentric childhood on the Grey Gardens-style Rokeby estate would make Dickens gasp. . . . Splendid.”
“Evocative. . . . Aldrich astutely portrays a colorful cast of aunts, uncles, cousins and hangers-on—clinging to the family legacy long after the money is gone. One can’t help but cheer as she breaks away from the others to make a name for herself.”
In a sparklingly mischievous debut, Aldrich peers into the intimate collapse of a once great Hudson River house—the “funny farm” of her Astor/Livingston/Chanler relatives. Spiraling way down from a long line of enterprising early Americans, financiers, socialites, and artists with illustriously entangled names, author Aldrich, whose great-grandfather was the famous music critic Richard Aldrich, reconstructs her early years growing up at the ancestral homestead of Rokeby, a 43-room mansion with numerous outlying towers and barns located on 450 acres somewhere along the Hudson River between New York City and Albany (though she never says where exactly, it is in Barryown, N.Y.). The fierce guardians of the house’s aristocratic legacy, exemplified by great-grandmother Margaret Chanler, who banished relatives who had divorced or converted to Catholicism, had passed by the 1980s when Aldrich was growing up at Rokeby to a generation of impoverished, disorderly parasites, alcoholics, and madmen. Her own father, called Teddy, a Harvard-educated handyman, seemed to delight in his “deliberate defiance” of his familial responsibility and refused to make a living, preferring to ride around on the backhoe, while her Polish-born peasant artist mother, Ala, was frequently depressed and resistant to any involvement in her only daughter’s school or life. Thus the young girl longed for order and stability and even a square meal, which she found occasionally at her Grandma Claire’s quarters, when the old matriarch wasn’t “sucking on the bottle.” Aldrich’s narrative tidily and fondly bears witness to the inexorable unraveling of a storied genealogy. (Apr.)
Rokeby, the sprawling, dilapidated Hudson Valley home of Aldrich’s aristocratic forebears, the Astors, played as much of a role in her bohemian childhood as any of the eccentric adults who raised her there. Tensions between efforts at historic preservation and a desire for normalcy and comfort created warring factions among the numerous family members (and their partisans) residing at the 43 room estate on 450 acres. Aldrich’s portrait of a family with more history and house than money, vividly illustrates the concept of shabby chic. What is made even clearer is the extent to which Aldrich’s family draws its identity from Rokeby.
VERDICT Inevitably, comparisons to Albert and David Maysles documentary film Grey Gardens spring to mind. Aldrich provides a fascinating, if voyeuristic peek behind the rotting silk curtains in one of America’s aristocratic families’ home. Seriously? It made this reader want to hop in a car and poke around Rokeby herself.
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In this novelistic debut, a poor girl with a rich pedigree remembers coming-of-age in the decaying shell of her family's once-grand Hudson Valley home. By the time Aldrich's grandparents inherited the Rokeby estate, their branch of a dynasty that included the 19th-century trader John Jacob Astor had lost almost all its wealth except for the 450-acre lot on the Hudson that had been in the family since the 1680s. Three hundred years later, when this memoir opens, the 10-year-old Aldrich and her destitute parents shared the elegantly crumbling mansion with her better-off aunt and uncle and two younger cousins. Her alcoholic grandmother and a pampered Labrador retriever shared a less-opulent guesthouse of more recent vintage, and a motley assortment of transients and bohemians lived rent-free, courtesy of her father Teddy's generosity (or inability to say no), in various outbuildings scattered around the property. A bright and sensitive girl on the doorstep of puberty, Aldrich was just beginning to feel the sting of shame associated with being the child of the charming but feckless Teddy, who, though educated at the best schools, had no skills or desires to be anything but the lord of Rokeby, and his beautiful, sharp-tongued wife. Her shame only increased when Teddy welcomed a mysterious French woman named Giselle into the fold. Rokeby had once been a paradise for Aldrich. With its scandalous secrets, it was becoming more like a prison she longed to escape through the auspices of a hypothetical unknown wealthy aunt or through her own skill at the violin. It's a trick to tell a story this rich and complicated through the eyes of a child without losing the subtleties of character and nuances of history, but Aldrich pulls it off with aplomb. Vividly gothic family romance.