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

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  3,098 ratings  ·  505 reviews
Faced with the sale of the century-old family summer house on Cape Cod where he had spent forty-two summers, George Howe Colt recounts returning for one last stay with his wife and children in this stunning memoir that was a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

This poignant tribute to the eleven-bedroom jumble of gables, bays, and dor
Paperback, 336 pages
Published June 8th 2004 by Scribner (first published May 20th 2003)
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Average rating 3.74  · 
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 ·  3,098 ratings  ·  505 reviews

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May 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Yes!
This book really hit home for me. As my Dad said after reading this book, EVERYONE has a 'Big House' whether it is an actual house, people, a place, or just a time of your life that is ephemeral. This chronicles the story of a house that has been a part of the New England Colt family for several generations and how once their family fortune was squandered after many many years, it became impossible to keep this house in which so many memories were born. It is at times hysterical, tragic, heartwa ...more
Aug 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I was unpacking books today and found this great books in the bottom of a box. It is written by a man whose family has owned a home on cape Cod for 100 years and now, because of the cost of upkeep and the number of family members, it is being sold. He begins the book with his last visit to the house he has been going to all his life and then goes back to the memories of all the years it has been in the family. It is a poignant book about family, legacies, memories, and how to say good-bye to a p ...more
Oct 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Big House has been part of the Colt family history since it was built by the author's great grandfather, Ned Atkinson in the very early years of the 18th century. Build on Bluff overlooking Cape Cod, it is the epitome of a bygone era, during which time all the old Boston families were building summer homes as an escape from the city. And though large and rambling, one time staffed by a host of maids and boasting a separate cottage to house the chauffeur, like other summer homes of it's era i ...more
Oct 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Reading G.H. Colt's The Big House you may find yourself shutting the book at page 150, and thinking to yourself, "Wait, why do I feel sorry for this dude -- in the original sense of the word -- who summers every August in Wings Neck? Because he's losing his summer home? Errr ..."

Yet, you can't help but be intrigued by Colt's well-written book. He has tale after tale to tell about his time spent at his summer home, built many generations ago by his great-great-great ... great grandfather, Ned At
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Best of all, there were books. Although it didn't take rain to get us reading in the Big House (in fact, reading inside on a sunny day gave us a deliciously guilty feeling), on an overcast afternoon people would be curled up with a book in almost every bedroom, with three or four of us draped over the sofas in the living room, physically proximate yet in separate worlds.

This book was just so incredibly charming and tragic. It made me nostalgic for something I have never had nor never will... a s
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm wavering between a 3 and a 4 on this. Mostly, as I was reading it, I was loving it, because it's well-written, and because nostalgia over old beloved houses is a subject that resonates with me. I liked that it was not only a bittersweet elegy to a lost time and a soon to be lost place, but also an ethnography of a certain type of Boston family. I was interested to realize that the author is married to Anne Fadiman. However, the ending felt really flat to me. (view spoiler) ...more
Feb 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
I loved this book for three reasons:

1. His wife, Anne Fadiman, is one of my most favorite authors, so it was fun to see her from another perspective.

2. We had a summer house up until 2003 that I loved loved loved. (We called it "camp"). Sadly, unlike The Big House, it did not get sold to a member of my family, and I miss it terribly. I do not think there will ever be another place as good. The Big House made me miss it all over again (and feel better about being so emotional over a house).

3. H
May 18, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: book-club
I need a map! And a geneology chart!! And what the heck is a Brahmin?? How have I not heard that term before? Granted, I am no Bostonian, but I did spend most of my life in the northeast... I'm so glad I'm past the architectural history and into the family's stories. I'm now able to keep my eyes open for more than 2 pages at a time! :)

Okay - finished reading it this morning. (Obviously we are finished in the playoffs, or I never would have had that kind of time...) It did get a little bi
Jul 04, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoir
I have read few books so desperately in need of editing as George Howe Colt's The Big House. Colt tells the story of the grand old summer house on Cape Cod that has been in his family for over a century. If he had stuck to the story of that house, this would have been a very fine book. But the endless meditations on the peculiarities of Boston society are profoundly wearying. I can't even imagine a proper Bostonian putting up with page after page after page of his blather.

That said, there are s
I was disappointed with this book. It was mainly the author's incessant whining about all the wonderful events in their "summer lives," on Cape Cod as opposed to their winter lives in Boston and of course dispersed around the world in wonderful places: London, New York, Greenwich, Montreal. It reminded me of a certain columnist in the York Sunday News who wrote about his kids college experiences as though they were the only two teenagers to ever go away to college. The author writes as though he ...more
Mar 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
I think this will be one of those quiet books whose impact doesn't really hit you until after you've finished. It's a slow mover, lots of history and details (some of which I bypassed or skimmed, especially the sailing parts, but I looked forward to reading it every day and I'll probably thinking about it quite a bit now that I'm done. The family tree stuff gets confusing and by the end I couldn't remember who was who, but the family history is interesting. I wish the author had included picture ...more
This book came to my attention through it being on the list of National Book Finalists. I thought the premise of writing the history of a house sounded intriguing so I got it from the library. From the first page, Colt's prose resonated with me so I did the most reasonable thing - I returned the library book and ordered a copy of my own. I placed sticky notes on pages where I found beautifully written sentences, paragraphs, and profound ideas. My entire book has sticky notes coming out of it! Th ...more
Mar 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I found this memoir interesting as the author took us through the life of a huge summer house shared by several generations of his very large family. House history and family histories made this part memoir and part biography a bittersweet story, slowly moving to the story's close.
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. While not nearly as grand, our family's summer house created the same family bonds. Many things resonated with me while reading this book, such as the rediscovery at the start of each summer. Was everything still as it was? Were there new wonders to explore?
A dear cousin (who shared the house for half the summer, while his uncle's family stayed there the other half), gave this book to me because he identified so deeply with the idea of the house as a family gathering place, and
Sep 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
2.5 stars ✨ I wish it was in a more story like format.
Elizabeth Frick
Sep 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
A lovely story that I enjoyed more and more as I got further into it.
Jul 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I started reading this book in much the same way the author's family used The Big House - as a vacation get-away - though in their case it was an extended summer stay. I read what I could on weekends. But I became so eager to learn what became of the house that I could no longer relegate my reading to weekends.

George Colt writes a history of the house that his great-grandfather built on Cape Cod in 1903 and that the family has enjoyed as a summer retreat for four generations. He skillfully weave
Sep 20, 2018 rated it liked it
While I love the idea of a family summer home, especially one in Cape Cod, the first half of this book was so dull that I almost gave up on it. It's another memoir where the author seems to think a general public reader will be totally fascinated by his or her family for some reason or another. Thus, no detail is left out about anything or anyone. The second half of the book fortunately was more interesting, but there still were problems with too many details, as well as invasion of privacy matt ...more
Carol Vuillemenot
Jun 10, 2009 rated it it was ok
This is not a bad book if you are interested in some of the history of the population patterns of Cape Cod, MA. I was much more interested in the people who owned the Big House, their family interactions, et al. The house itself is big (11 bedrooms, many bathrooms, a separate quest house, etc.). I really couldn't identify with that family or their property and so I got bored quickly. After page 78, I skimmed a few chapters and then just read the last chapter even though I knew the ending. All is ...more
Sep 16, 2009 rated it it was ok
This was a really nice story, but took me a long time to get into it. I really wanted to like it, but I kept feeling side-tracked by the very personal details that the author went into about his family. I also found the writing style and vocabulary a little pretentious, although there were some very beautiful passages describing the house and the Cape. I kept reading because every once in a while there was a passage particularly relevant to me about summer living or Boston history (where I curre ...more
May 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, history
Such a good book! Loving non-fiction the way I do, this was a perfect combination of history & biography, tied together in a story about a beloved, 100 year old family home. Mr. Colt’s is a fascinating, imperfect family & I enjoyed his insight into the Brahmin class of Boston from which his ancestors sprang. Learning about the history & development of Cape Cod over the years was equally as interesting, although I did find myself shaking my head, thinking “what a shame”, several times as the auth ...more
Jul 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I am really enjoying this book written about a place I am not at all familiar with. The history is so interesting and I love picturing the house with all it's additions and nooks and crannies. But the edition I have really needs a map and a picture of the house (from the ocean side). I used Google map to find out where Wing's neck is and try to identify the house but it is still not satisfying.

Now that I finished it, I find it's one of those books where you
miss the people and the place. I would
Rach Ashby
Mar 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
Although it took me all summer to read - I thoroughly enjoyed the vivid pictures that were created through word. I can relate to Colt's attachment to a Big House.
Aug 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Clearly brings back the atmosphere of summers on New England beaches. Wonderfully romantic read.
May 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book captured an amazing spectrum of stories: the biography of a family, the history of a community woven into the fabric of a country, and the story of a house. As such, its pages held layers of stories and information, all personalized through connection to the individual lives lived in and around the "big house" in question. The frame of George’s own real-time family engagement with the house was beautifully woven in between family history reminiscences, community history, and architectu ...more
May 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The history of a huge ramshackle summer house on Cape Cod and the five generations of Colts/Atkinsons who spent their summers there, as well as being the story of the aforementioned Boston Brahmin families that populated its eccentric convoluted 8000 square feet. Summers that included massive gatherings of siblings, cousins, grandparents, and numerous aunts and uncles , not to mention the occasional one or five unrelated visitors (19 rooms! All named.). Summers that consisted of sailing, swimmin ...more
Apr 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not a story to be rushed along, rather, it should be savored and contemplated. Imagine, an 8 gabled, 8,000 sf house set on 13 acres of waterfront in Cape Code, built in 1903 with 11 bedrooms that housed members of the Boston Colt family for four generations. Called "The Big House", I could see that house and its surroundings in my mind so vivid were Colt's descriptions and felt like I knew each family member by name and sight. Truly a historic piece.
Jul 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An outstanding memoir; it has everything: a strong sense of place and how it forms a family, the transcendence of childhood summers, a fading world. In Colt's hands, the house itself becomes a living, breathing entity. Unforgettable.

One of the few books I've read multiple times. And I'm sure I'll read it a few more.

Sarah Whitney
Nov 13, 2008 rated it liked it
A few quotes that stuck out....

It is a house without memories, a house without ghosts, a house waiting to become a home.
Page 77

Even a Bostonian’s manners are a form of self-denial. There have been occasions in the Big House when I – and everyone else in my family – have let the last ear of corn on the platter languish uneaten rather than suffer the ignominy of appearing selfish. Back to the kitchen it will go, at which point someone will surreptitiously gobble it up: in the Brahmin hierarchy of
Kristie Helms
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Every so often the right book comes along at the right time and just touches the exact right personal chord. This book came along about 6 months before I actually decided to read it, but I feel now as if it were just waiting for me to be in the headspace to be moved by it.

Good job, book.

I've lived in Boston almost 13 years. And while I love it dearly, I am very decidedly not from Boston. Not anywhere even close to being from Boston. There is a way I think Boston gets into the very bones of the p
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George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of November of the Soul The Enigma of Suicide and The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times notable book. He is married to the American author Anne Fadiman and lives with his family in Western Massachusetts. ...more

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