“To the New Owners,” Madeleine Blais’s evocative memoir about her family’s deep connection with Martha’s Vineyard, was triggered by the 2014 sale of the beloved property that her in-laws bought on Tisbury Great Pond in the 1970s. It joins a flotilla of elegies to bygone summer homes, including George Howe Colt’s memoir, “The Big House” (2003), and Nick Fitzhugh’s documentary, “Starboard Light” (2014). In each case, financial realities and practicalities spurred a heartbreaking sale, which in turn unleashed a high tide of bittersweet nostalgia.
Blais comes to her subject with two major advantages: She’s a deft and witty Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and her husband’s parents were well-connected powerhouses. Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach served as U.S. attorney general in the mid-1960s. His wife, Lydia King Phelps Stokes Katzenbach, was an imposing psychoanalyst.
In her portrait of the Vineyard, Blais dutifully trots out the names of famous people who have summered there, including Jackie Onassis, Lillian Hellman, John Belushi, and the Clintons and Obamas, though few get more than a passing mention. Former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham rates a whole chapter. A high point of each summer was their shared meal, alternating houses. Blais writes that Mohu, Graham’s 218-acre estate in Lambert’s Cove, “felt like the set of a Katharine Hepburn movie, one in which the heroine shows verbal spunk and athletic grace in equal measure.”
Blais makes no bones about how unhappy she is about her expulsion from the family’s summer Eden, but she is well aware of the dangers of writing what could come across as a “Lament of the One Percent.” To put her sadness in perspective, she recalls her strict Catholic upbringing by a widowed mother of six, and cites salient sources of global suffering in the summer of 2014.
The book’s snappy tone is exemplified by Blais’s wry comparison of her husband’s old WASP family with her own Irish American background. “They are before the Mayflower, mine is before the potato famine,” she writes, also contrasting “private viewings of the movie ‘PT 109’ at the White House” with “all-you-can-eat spaghetti suppers in the church basement. . . . John’s father was mythic because he was part of history; mine was mythic because he was dead.”
At the heart of Blais’s book is its eulogy to a culture of “purposeful modesty.” Her in-laws built their single-story summer house down a two-mile dirt track “before the word ‘McMansion’ even existed, at a time when people were still mindful of what the neighbors might think,” she writes. Like the shack they replaced, it had a “pickled-in-time quality,” with no dishwasher, heat, AC, television or Internet. For years it didn’t even have electricity or telephone service. Maintained with what she calls “a strategy of benign neglect,” by the time the family put it on the market, “decay was general: Shingles had detached from the exterior like a self-peeling banana.”
Blais’s initial surprise at the rustic shabbiness reminded me of my own bafflement at the threadbare rugs and miserable ancient horsehair mattresses at my husband’s grandparents’ Adirondack cottage, where meals were served formally on chipped china. She comments, “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.”
A self-declared archivist, Blais relies heavily — sometimes too heavily — on external documents for her portrait of the Vineyard. These include many articles from the Vineyard Gazette quoted at length, and even a family friend’s college application essay about what she learned about the less privileged from her summer job at the local Stop & Shop.
Excerpts cherry-picked from the logbooks in which visitors were required to write add more color. These logs helped to fix memories in “verbal aspic,” but also to distinguish between, say, “the Summer of All Fog” and the summer of no water. The entries include recipes, warnings, celebrity sightings, dog tales and what she dubs “the artful complaint,” often about the perennial paucity of fish.
Some of the wittiest comments are by her sister-in-law, Anne. (“Electricians came. Electricity didn’t.”) Favorite repeat guests Philip Caputo and his wife, Leslie Ware, a longtime Consumer Reports editor, cleverly rated each year’s visit in CR style. Lydia Katzenbach’s logpost in 1993 presciently flagged “delightful visits and fun with the Clintons at Kay Graham’s,” where she and her husband “came away from dinner especially impressed with HRC, feeling with her intelligence, wit, and warmth she could easily be president herself. Maybe she will be.”
Blais writes, “I am so grateful we persisted in taking notes on ourselves. In a culture that worships the delete button, there was something comforting about the indelibility of these words.”
“To the New Owners” sparkles when Blais focuses on her family’s frequently funny experiences instead of trying to capture Martha’s Vineyard with an island tour and a rundown of its offseason activities. I won’t divulge what eventually transpires with the Katzenbach property, though I can say that the book has an edge. New owners — with your central air-conditioning, lap pools, saunas and screening rooms — take note! Blais pointedly showcases the simpler, more modest and, alas, rapidly disappearing old Vineyard she loves. Unfortunately, the changes she mourns are happening everywhere. Which makes records like this all the more valuable.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle.
On July 21 at 7 p.m., Madeleine Blais will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Madeleine Blais
Atlantic Monthly. 272 pp. $26