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‘To the New Owners,’ About a Summer Place (Too) Well Loved

(Honey, grab a sponge, little Whitaker got fudge on the pre-dented coffee table again.)

In part it’s a memoir about her husband’s family’s long association with the island, and about the quaintly ramshackle waterfront house on five and a half acres they were forced to sell for $3 million after her father-in-law’s death in 2012.

Most notably, perhaps, as its title hints, “To the New Owners” is a steaming load dropped on the author’s former doorstep, a book-length act of revenge, a cleat-hitch slap that will reverberate up and down the Eastern coastline.

The new owners had the temerity not merely to be the new owners, but to tear the old house down and rebuild, never mind that the author’s in-laws did the same thing when they bought the place. More insidiously, the new folks added (cue the scary organ music) a lap pool.


Madeleine Blais, author of “To the New Owners.”

Nancy Doherty

In your mind, Photoshop Chris Christie in a beach chair into this scene. Now you will understand the impression Blais hopes to create.

We don’t learn much about these new people and their children except that the husband works in finance. But Blais’s book imparts a message — sometimes subliminal, sometimes explicit: Our moral weave has a finer thread count than theirs, and they will never appreciate this place as much as we did.

You finish this book hoping the new couple composes a feisty retaliatory volume. They could call it “Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out.” Or, to paraphrase Christopher Ricks, “Goodbye, and We Don’t Mean Au Revoir.”

Everyone feels possessive and sentimental about the houses they occupy, even summer rentals. But Blais squanders what sympathy we might have, the way those noisy spinning extractors force the water out of swimsuits.

In part the problem is a cloying, saltwater taffy tone. The first time one of the new owners drives up, “the air danced with sunlight.” We are forced to read about “the drama of finding the perfect tomato” and a ride in “a soulful canoe” and an “extremely sincere ratatouille.” “Extremely sincere ratatouille” is a not-bad description of many of this book’s sentences.

The level of self-drama is set at 9.8 on the Lena Dunham scale. About falling in love with her husband, the thriller writer John Katzenbach, Blais writes: “John and I met in New Jersey during the 1970s, a skittish time in the history of the republic” — as if they were clinging to the landing skids of the last helicopter out of Weehawken.

Other patches are like a college alumni magazine update, filled with memories of chicken fajita casseroles and panini makers past. A regular summer guest who gets dragged into all this is the writer Philip Caputo. There’s a glowing report of “Phil’s swordfish roll-ups.” Nonguest celebrity sightings include some you would like to unsee, such as “lawyer Alan Dershowitz on his cellphone at the nude beach at Lucy Vincent.”

Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1980 while at The Miami Herald and has written several books, makes it plain that she wasn’t born to privilege. She grew up in a small farming community in Massachusetts, one of six children raised by a single mother, an Irish-Catholic childhood she unpacked in her book “Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family” (2001).

Her husband, on the other hand, grew up in rarefied social circles. His best friend as a boy was Robert McNamara’s son. His schoolboy high jinks included accidentally consuming, as an afternoon snack, filets mignons meant to be served to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon.

His father, Nicholas Katzenbach (1922-2012), was a formidable man who spent nearly three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. He graduated from Princeton and was a Yale and University of Chicago law professor.

One of David Halberstam’s “best and brightest,” he served as attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson and confronted Gov. George Wallace at the door of the University of Alabama during the desegregation of the school.

Blais’s portraits of Nicholas Katzenbach and of his wife, Lydia King Phelps Stokes, are among this book’s highlights.

“The new owners had no idea what they were getting,” Blais writes, as they considered tearing down the Katzenbach home. “A dwelling that meant so much to us could clearly never have the same meaning to anyone else.”

She goes out of her way to make sure this will be so. In this book’s lowest moment, she prints several pages of what are apparently official notes from the West Tisbury Planning Board about the new owners’ plans to build a much larger house on the land.

At this point, all you’ll want is a soulful canoe in which to paddle back to the mainland.

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