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The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home Hardcover


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (May 20, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684845172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684845173
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #206,270 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The epicenter of the Colt family is the Big House, built in 1903 on Wings Neck, a deserted strip of Cape Cod. It's not only an architectural gem but a device to chronicle family, local history and the culture of Boston Brahmins-and it accomplishes that task with charm, style and solid research. For 42 summers, Colt traveled from winter homes across the U.S. to partake in this magical place. It's where he learned to swim and play tennis, and where he kissed his first girl. Indeed, the Big House has seen five weddings, four divorces, parties, anniversaries and love affairs. The Colts, a once venerable tribe, had lost their money-"it is not wealth so much as former wealth that defines Old Money families"-but were determined to keep their ancestral home. Time may have marched on, but the Big House refused to cooperate: "Everything in this house breathes of the past." Gilbert & Sullivan sheet music, rotary telephones and ancient globes grace its interiors. Yet all is not perfect in this palace by the sea. Colt, like playwright A.J. Gurney, is adept at exposing the dark underbelly of WASP restraint, recording the mental illness, alcoholism and despair that have plagued his family. His one comfort? The Big House. This love letter to the past is a quiet delight.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

In 1903, the author's great-grandfather, a Boston Brahmin named Edward W. Atkinson, built his family a house on Cape Cod, at Wings Neck, the last undeveloped peninsula overlooking Buzzards Bay. The Big House, as this multi-storied conglomeration of gables, dormers, and bays came to be called, included "eleven bedrooms, seven fireplaces, and a warren of closets, cupboards, and crannies that four generations of Wings Neck children have used for games of Sardines." It was also an expensive firetrap with sixty-seven windows in need of attention, leaking roofs, wildlife procreating in its walls, and no indoor shower. In 1992, after agonized debate, the family decided to put it on the market. Colt's account, like the house that lies at its center, is full of surprises and contains more than seems humanly possible: a family memoir, a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a catalogue of local fauna, a study of class, and a meditation on the privileges and burdens of the past.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Despite these minor flaws the book is very worth reading; I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Stephen Schwartz
The author tells his story and his family's story in a way that makes me feel he is telling the story of us all.
Swissmiss
At the start of the book, Colt describes taking his young family to the house for what may be the last summer.
crazyforgems

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 90 people found the following review helpful By crazyforgems on December 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"The Big House" is a big piece of work by George Howe Colt.
For a century, "The Big House," an eleven bedroom architectural gem on Cape Cod, has been in the Atkinson/Colt family. At the start of the book, Colt describes taking his young family to the house for what may be the last summer. Alas, the extended family can no longer afford to keep the home and it must be sold.
The house has served as a center of gravity for this family, a place which pulls them back each summer to live out graceful and simple Boston Brahim traditions. The house also serves as a metaphor for the fading fortunes of this once wealthy, once socially prominent family whose entire caste-the Brahmins of Boston--has become irrelevant.
Through the prism of the house and its meaning to his family, Colt also delves into his family's history of mental illness, of marriages that become estranged, of boys that start out as golden children and end up tarnished old men.
He also recounts his own story. He began his adult life as a young Brahmin with disdain for his heritage. Now in mid-life and a New Yorker, he is deeply proud of the many traits (e.g., thrift, reverence for family) bred deep in his bones.
I would recommend this book to those who gravitate towards serious memoirs and thoughtful accounts of profound issues (e.g., meaning of family). It is a beautiful read.
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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous book. It is not just the story of a summer house, and of the family that owned it for it's first hundred years, It is a book about what Aristocracy means, about letting go, about accepting oblivion.
There is only one draw back to the book : No maps, No family tree, No photographs. The maps you can buy, the family tree you can draw yourself as you read the book, but you need the photographs. Especially when there are so many descriptions of photos in the book.
I suggest the publishing of a new " Special Edition" of the book, with reproductions of the original blueprint for The Big House, and photos of it and the successive generations of Forbes-Atkinsons- Colts -Singers who summered in it.
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50 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Peggy Vincent on July 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Big House on Cape Cod was built more than a century ago by the author's great-grandfather. It weathered 2 world wars, joy and tragedy, the changing seasons and fortunes of two families, and the transition from the simpler life-styles of past times to our own modern `very fast is still too slow' culture. When the house becomes financially untenable for family members to maintain, Colt returns for one last visit before it goes on sale...and there the story, a touching and wistful memoir, begins. Don't miss this lovely book.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By E. Honey on August 1, 2004
Format: Paperback
The Big House is so many things, evokes so many feelings and alerts all of your senses. I have never really felt compelled to write a review online for anything, but when I finished The Big House, I wanted everyone to experience what I felt. First of all, it's a great summer read because it's about summers on Cape Cod in a fantastic old house. But it's also a fabulous history of a family from the turn of the century to the present. It takes you back to a different era. This writer takes you through every part of this amazing house and the path down to the water. You can feel it, you can smell it and you can hear the wind blow! It reminded me of many summers at the beach with my family and even though it wasn't on Cape Cod, there were so many similarities. You can see the worn decks of cards in the drawer and the old Monopoly games, you can smell the muffins in the kitchen, you can even picture the photographs on the walls and see the old books in the bookcases...I can't say enough good things about this book. It's a book that I didn't want to end...and yet I needed to finish to see what happens to the house. George Howe Colt is a very gifted writer. You have to read this!
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By the_global_village_idiot on November 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
...both literally and metaphorically.

I found The Big House a fascinating read for several reasons. First, Colt's story hits awfully close to home; my family, too, had a Buzzards Bay 'Shingle' house just a few miles south of the Colt homestead, and lost it for similar reasons. The discussion of 'Cold Roast Boston' Brahmin culture and values - and the pressures these place on its scions - cuts close, too. Even grew up (winters) in the same Connecticut town, at the same time. I'm surprised we never met.

I need to be clear here: Colt is a hugely gifted writer. His prose is rich and sensual; his observational powers are wonderful, and his ability to describe place - sight, smell, touch - is remarkable, as is his ability to respectfully and still accurately tell the stories of his family. In lesser hands, The Big House would be a maudlin bit of nostalgic pap and of interest only to those who know the area and the culture. The book avoids this trap... barely.

Even so, there's something slightly self-indulgent about The Big House. Obviously, the creation of a book like this creates a catharsis for its author, and it was interesting - mostly - to go along for the ride. But in a book that's ultimately all about learning to let go of things we love, it's kind of ironic that the author didn't seem able to let go of the book, either. WASP families, for all their virtues, can become somewhat stifling after a while, and so does The Big House. Fifty or sixty fewer pages would have left me amazed, moved and wanting more. As it is, I ultimately felt like I'd stayed with the relatives a few days too long.
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