To the New Owners Review
- May 6, 2017Sherwood SmithFor the past five years, I’ve been traveling to Martha’s Vineyard for Viable Paradise Workshop, so I’ve had the opportunity to explore a place that hitherto I’d only heard about.My expectation as I’d first stepped off the ferry had been of a sort of island Beverly Hills. What you actually see are tiny coast-hugging towns, each with its own personality. The mansions of the super-rich do exist, but are largely hidden, a few glimpsed across wetlands as you drive or bike the island’s perimeter. Inst For the past five years, I’ve been traveling to Martha’s Vineyard for Viable Paradise Workshop, so I’ve had the opportunity to explore a place that hitherto I’d only heard about.My expectation as I’d first stepped off the ferry had been of a sort of island Beverly Hills. What you actually see are tiny coast-hugging towns, each with its own personality. The mansions of the super-rich do exist, but are largely hidden, a few glimpsed across wetlands as you drive or bike the island’s perimeter. Instead, what the non-billionaire visitor gets is a wonderful experience, which is richly described in this beautifully, even tenderly written memorial.It is loosely organized around the summers the author’s extended family spent on the island. Her parents-in-law bought a summer home decades ago when their family was young, a falling-down shack on one of the many ponds. The author, brought there for the first time, was warned that it was a shack, but she (from a large family in a small town, and not raised to wealth) assumed that this was typical rich folk deprecation, and packed for upscale vacation.She said: I had experienced student-style poverty and had recently practiced the prim economies of someone fresh to the workforce paying back student loans.It was then that I got an inkling of how some people delight in deprivation, even court it. The idea of a certain kind of cheerful self-abnegation in gorgeous settings was new to me, the notion that patched elbows, fraying hems, and chipped dishes throw perfect vistas into relief and also the notion that the less your summer setting resembled the heavy baggage of your winter setting, the better.In other words, the shack really was a shack. But a shack in a glorious setting.Eventually the shack was later upgraded, but it was still very much a summer home: indoor toilets and electricity eventually added, and a deck that was never quite free of splinters. Not exactly luxury, and yet the sum of their experience was exponentially more precious than mere expensive impedimenta: waking each day to wonderful weather, with the prospect of a long day of fun stretching ahead, surrounded by those you love most.This book includes memorials about rich and famous people as well as family, but it is not about being rich and famous. It’s about family, and togetherness, time and appreciation, eccentricity and laughter—and sometimes sudden sorrow, and how one copes. Using the log that summer guests had to write in at the end of each summer (that included family members, even the kids), the author swoops back and forth across time, veering between describing the glorious fun her family had each summer, and taking the reader on a vividly described tour of the island over the years. Many of the idiosyncratic places she describes are still there, others are gone—as she acknowledges.I think Jane Austen said this, but if she did not, as Miss Pith, she should have:Everything happens at parties.I looked around that night and realized that at certain signal moments the people you gather and the place where they assemble can be in and of itself a work of art, as real as any painting in a museum. The built-in vanishing act underscored the power of the moment.”“The greatest heartache about getting old,” Lydia once wrote, “is wanting so much, yearning, to be around and to see and be with the next generation, with their talents and passions and possibilities and graduations and passages and achievements and joys and knowing you can’t or won’t be there.”The book falters a bit somewhere in the middle, when a number of famous guests are described: the author doesn’t quite find that balance between not enough (quotations from the summer guest log, and a précis of who each person was) and too much (mostly a journalistic summary of notable achievements in the wider world outside the island) but that segment is brief enough. She brings the book back around to family, and the narrative settles once again into an emotionally textured, vivid testament, coming at last to the end that everyone knew had to be.There is overall a strong sense of the passage of time: the book was written after the author lost those beloved in-laws (one of them Lydia Katzenbach, the Lydia of the magnificent parties quoted above)—wife of a man quite well known in government circles. After they passed away, and the newer generation had all grown up and moved on to adult lives, it was decided that the time had come to sell the house and property. Inevitably the new owners were putting up a McMansion, but that happens. It was time to let go. But memory stays, especially when written up in loving detail as exampled here.Copy provided by NetGalleymore
- July 1, 2017JoanTwee*If this were a SNL parody of the privileged classes it would funny, sadly it's not. In fact I felt like Gatsby or at least F. Scott Fitzgerald could pop in from East Egg any minute. As a sociological study it might be interesting- it goes a long way toward explaining the rise of Donald Trump.more
- July 13, 2017KatharineI spent the summer after college in 1967 living with 2 friends in Oak Bluffs and working as a waitress. It's hard to read this book and learn what the island has become. I was disappointed in the book. Instead of history and geography it is filled with boldface names and nostalgia.more
- July 17, 2017KathleenI don't think you need to dig too deeply to understand we are defined by geography. Here where I live in coastal Massachusetts, the Atlantic Ocean is filled with bounty...sometimes; the narrow, winding paths carved inland by the Pilgrims are challenging to today's drivers and commuters finding their way to jobs in the city; the rocky, sandy soil tests farmers and gardeners.Madeleine Blais' memoir about her in-laws' summer cottage on Martha's Vineyard, which sold in 2014, more than fifty years af I don't think you need to dig too deeply to understand we are defined by geography. Here where I live in coastal Massachusetts, the Atlantic Ocean is filled with bounty...sometimes; the narrow, winding paths carved inland by the Pilgrims are challenging to today's drivers and commuters finding their way to jobs in the city; the rocky, sandy soil tests farmers and gardeners.Madeleine Blais' memoir about her in-laws' summer cottage on Martha's Vineyard, which sold in 2014, more than fifty years after they purchased it, raises the questions: Does the place define you? Which comes first: the place, or the way the place makes you feel like yourself?Individual chapters share personal stories. What drew Madeleine Blais to her husband, John Katzenbach, now a successful author: "We were both readers." The comparisons between the two families "are easy to document in broad, reductive strokes: they are before the 'Mayflower,' mine is before the potato famine." Her in-laws, Lydia King Phelps Stokes and husband, Nicholas Katzenbach, were important, accomplished, accessible people. Lydia trained to be a psychoanalyst later in life. Katzenbach was the US Attorney General to President Lyndon Johnson and then, under secretary of state. History will long remember him for his part in a sentinel moment in the civil rights struggle, captured in a photograph as he stared down Governor George Wallace, vehemently opposed to integration, who was blocking the door to the University of Alabama in 1963. Her love for Lydia, her respect for Nick is imbedded throughout the memoir. Every year Lydia gave something up she did not like or thought was unnecessary such as making excuses, always being the one who initiated conversations, hosting dinner parties with more than 10 people in attendance, attending "resume funerals." One of my favorite parts of the memoir was Lydia and Nick's response to why their marriage lasted as long as it did. "She said the reason was he made her life possible. He said it was the one thing he never needed a reason for."I loved Blais' wry humor: "If you wish, you can spend your time on the island engaged in varsity socializing..." Things in the cottage, like the power, sometimes worked, and often, didn't. No internet service, no television, spotty cell service brought guests back to a simpler time, which they relished. I loved her observations, those insights that caught me by surprise and reflected their universality: "I...realized that at certain signal moments the people you gather and the place where they assembled can be in and of itself a work of art, as real as any painting in a museum." Her musings about friends who vanished from our lives resonated with me: "Where did friendship flee? Did it hide its head amid the cloud of stars above or did it go to some creepy warehouse for lost connections between people?" I have wondered about this. How did it happen? How could I lose touch with someone with whom I was so close at one time, sharing so much? Why wasn't it important enough to fight for it?The memoir chronicles famous people who have summered on Martha's Vineyard for years and whose privacy residents have always respected. I once saw William Styron in a clothing store there and after making meaningful eye contact, walked on. The chapter, "What Kay Graham Brought to the Table," provided wonderful anecdotes about Katharine Graham, Kay, Mrs. Graham, the publisher of the "Washington Post," a formidable presence, well-connected, courageous woman who raised four children as a single parent. Her memoir, "Personal History," raised the question to Blais about the difference between memoir and autobiography. Her conclusion is that autobiographies "tend to encompass the full span of life and are usually written by people who occupy some kind of public space. Memoirs are written by less obviously eminent sorts."Then there are the log books kept by all who visited the cottage each summer. "Words are indelible." The log books were ordered every year, titled in advance, with beautiful paper and professionally bound, which helped them to remember the small details and big themes. "The muddle of time was less muddled." Blais writes about the events that changed the profile of the island forever: Ted Kennedy's accident in 1969, the release of "Jaws" in 1975, and the series of presidential visits, beginning with Clinton in 1973. She weaves moments, small details into a larger story in some chapters only to come back to a sentinel detail later. The elderly Ward Chamberlin unexpectedly speaking at her father-in-law's memorial service was one such example. He recalled the summer of 1939, three young men bicycling through Normandy and Brittany, not knowing what was ahead. "History was breathing down their necks but they did not know it."I loved this book. At first, I read it slowly, one or two chapters at a time, because I am intrigued by what defines a "memoir," but then I was caught up with a place I, too, have loved since childhood, a place stamped by my own memories, history, and yes, now marked by the rich and famous. The author's sister-in-law, Anne, writing in the log book, in the final days, summarizes perhaps what we all love about a special place. "My connection with Martha's Vineyard is my point of balance - here the scale of life, worries, love, happiness doesn't move...Thank you for showing me how to love a place, how place stands in for those you love and how it makes you who you are.""An era is over and you feel a certain grief not just for our own selfish reasons but for the passing of time."more
- July 13, 2017LaurenI wanted to like this book more than I did. George Howe Colt's "The Big House" and Henry Beston's "The Outermost House" have probably set impossible standards in memoirs about seaside houses; in comparison, "To the New Owners" comes off as oddly dry and mostly fluff. I'm not sure why. Certainly the author has loads of raw material to work with: an old family house on a pond in Martha's Vineyard; a large, highly accomplished family (her father-in-law was attorney general under Johnson); decades o I wanted to like this book more than I did. George Howe Colt's "The Big House" and Henry Beston's "The Outermost House" have probably set impossible standards in memoirs about seaside houses; in comparison, "To the New Owners" comes off as oddly dry and mostly fluff. I'm not sure why. Certainly the author has loads of raw material to work with: an old family house on a pond in Martha's Vineyard; a large, highly accomplished family (her father-in-law was attorney general under Johnson); decades of summer visits with equally accomplished friends.Ironically, perhaps it is the presence of all these high-profile people that sinks the book; the name-dropping quickly becomes tedious. At one point I turned it into a game and started to count all the famous people she mentions; I stopped at 85 (Vernon Jordan, Carly Simon, Jim Belushi, Katharine "Kay" Graham, the Obamas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Princess Margaret, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, all the Kennedys in excruciating detail, etc.). At one point the author's family must reluctantly turn down a dinner invitation that includes the Kissingers. A quote from one of the author's family's "logs" or guest books: “We’ve had delightful visits and fun with the Clintons at Kay Graham’s, Jackie Onassis at her beach, and old friends at our house and around the island.” One quickly gets the point: this is where the rich, the powerful, and the well-published go to play and associate with each other. Which leads me to the other major problem I had with "To the New Owners": the percentage of the book that is made up of quoted materials. Blais includes nearly entire chapters of entries from the cottage guest books in the mistaken belief that because they're written by such witty luminaries as Phil Caputo and a friend who writes for Consumer Reports we too will find them endlessly fascinating. This is one of those techniques where a little goes a long way. I eventually found myself skimming most of these. She also includes what appears to be an entire college application essay from one youthful visitor and pages of Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick defense statement, as well as long excerpts from published articles from various sources. The result feels like one of those research papers one writes in high school when one doesn't have a lot of original things to say. And that's too bad, because this book comes most alive when Blais describes her family and their more prosaic summer rituals in her own words. That's when she touches on the universal experience of summers past, families and friends, and the places that bring them together for a time. Her prose is that of a journalist, straightforward and short on the sort of descriptive transcendence found in the two books mentioned above, but it gets the job done. One reason it may be unfair to compare "To the New Owners" with Colt's "The Big House" is the length of time the authors spent each year at their summer houses; rather than spending entire summers at the beach house as Colt did, Blais and her family went to Martha's Vineyard for only two weeks each year. This is certainly no criticism of Blais; few among us could manage more. But while two-week holidays scattered across the years provide snapshots of summer, they cannot capture the full arc of a season or provide the depth of knowledge of a place that more comprehensive stays do. At least that's the case here. In the end, that's what I came away with: a few snapshots of a witty, privileged family at play. There are worse ways to while away a few afternoons, but I had hoped for more.more
- July 25, 2017Mimi FintelMadeleine's in-laws bought a run down cottage for $80,000 in the 1970's on Martha's Vineyard. In 2014 the cottage was sold after her aging father-in-law passed away. This is a compilation of summer memories spent with family and friends on Martha's Vineyard. The original cottage they bought was so rickety it was replaced soon after the purchase but the new structure still had no heat or TV or telephone - but it did face the ocean. Many hours were spent on the beach along with fishing, reading, b Madeleine's in-laws bought a run down cottage for $80,000 in the 1970's on Martha's Vineyard. In 2014 the cottage was sold after her aging father-in-law passed away. This is a compilation of summer memories spent with family and friends on Martha's Vineyard. The original cottage they bought was so rickety it was replaced soon after the purchase but the new structure still had no heat or TV or telephone - but it did face the ocean. Many hours were spent on the beach along with fishing, reading, biking, hiking and talking. After the property was sold, the new owners knocked it down and built a 5,000 square foot year-round home with 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms and a 12' x 42' swimming pool. In her memoir, Blais laments the loss of the casual summer places in favor of the large monstrosities being built instead. I agree with her. I even see that here in Ottawa County, OH. Modest summer cottages are being torn down and replaced with huge homes that block the Lake Erie view and stress the infrastructure of the area. I continue to look back at a simpler, peaceful summer time existence. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.more
- July 26, 2017Maureen FlatleyA sweet meandering book that is the perfect read, summer or winter. A lovely memoir about a very special place.
- July 21, 2017MjmercerSome useful information about the island for my upcoming visit, but much too heavy on celebrity stories. Almost makes me intimidated!
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