The beautiful house on the beach


 To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir by Madeleine Blais, Atlantic Monthly Press,  US $26.00, Pp 272, July 2017, ISBN 978-0802126573

Madeleine Blais is an author, journalist, and academic. Her in-laws bought a vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard for $80,000, a fortune at that time. A little more than two miles down a poorly marked one-lane dirt road, the house had no electricity or modern plumbing. The roof leaked and the mice had eaten into the walls. They preferred to call it a shack. They rebuilt the house but still, there was no electricity, no heat, no TV, and no phone. The house, however, sat on Tisbury Great Pond and faced the ocean. They spent a lot of time at the beach where they also cooked and enjoyed food with friends through late in the night until they sold the house in 2014. To the New Owners is Blais’s memoir of this house, and of the Vineyard itself. She talks about the history of the island and its famous visitors to the ferry, the pie shops, the quirky charms and customs, and the abundant natural beauty. For Blais, it was a special place, it was the Vineyard house. It was a retreat and a dependable pleasure. Children were born and grew up here; others grew older and passed away. The house still lives on in her heart.

What vexes Blais most about selling the house was that the new owners had no idea what they were getting. They saw 5.5 acres, with only a small portion a buildable footprint. They saw the lot and the subdivision numbers by which we were known to the town of West Tisbury, important if it ever had to send a fire engine our way. They saw a roof that needed replacing and the chance to burden us with half the cost ($17,000). They saw a house they might upgrade, a house they might tear down.

Blais says that the new owners could, of course, imagine their own future happiness, but they could not see, and therefore could not appreciate, the human history preceding the purchase, all the lives that grazed our and the ones that truly interested, the noisy arrivals and departures, the arguments and the recipes, the ghosts and the guests, crabs caught and birthdays celebrated, clams shucked, towels shaken, lures assembled, bonfires lit, the dogs we indulged, the ticks we cursed, the pies we consumed, and, through it all, both close by and in the distance, the moving waters (as a poet put it) at their priestlike task. They could not see the depth of the life lived here during the summer for all those years.

As for her, the grip of the island on her psyche has not diminished with time and it will not. She writes, “The house is no longer ours, yes, but the island will never end. And besides, a loss of property is not a loss of life. We should be grateful for all the times we lose land and things and ballast and stuff and merchandise for being stand-ins, for keeping us from the sadness of more profound loss. Anyway, just think: every year, a new summer, coined for us by the earth on its axis, composed of sunshine and indolence, beckons.”

To the New Owners is a gripping and evocative memoir of a sensitive writer. She shows how people can become attached to places where they live for years or where they spend their adulthoods. It may make you nostalgic about the places where you have spent your best part of your life. You will not feel like putting it down before you finish it. Blais is a formidable writer and storyteller.