The Magazine

House of Cards

In the eyes of a child, the collapse of a family.

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By WENDY BURDEN
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"The Declaration of Independence was signed by, among others, our ancestor Robert Livingston,” 10-year-old Alexandra lectures her younger cousin, as they tramp through snow to skate on a pond at Rokeby, the 450-acre estate on which they both live. Thus we enter Alexandra Aldrich’s childhood memoir, a modern Gothic fairy tale that throbs with the formaldehyded bloodlines of Astors and Livingstons and Chanlers, and the misery of a girl growing up in a family that doesn’t meet her expectations.

Alexandra Aldrich

Alexandra Aldrich

Alexandra’s ancestors have made their home at this sprawling Hudson Valley estate for 10 generations. Trust funds depleted, the current owners struggle to maintain their historical riches by celebrating their past, and the effort to keep Rokeby afloat is what keeps the Aldrich family together—and at each others’ throats. In the domestic atmosphere of a barnyard, young Alexandra manages to carve out a self-disciplined life despite the negligence of quarreling relatives and the comings and goings of Rokeby’s many idiosyncratic tenants. In the time-honored tradition of the Once Hads, she must also deal with rampant alcoholism, questionable sanity, death—both animal and human—and a bastard or two. All of which adds up to one hell of a childhood.

The title refers to the 11 great-great-grandchildren of John Jacob Astor who inherited and roamed the estate with little management during the late 19th century and grew up to lead marvelous, unhinged lives. Used here in the singular, the title milks Alexandra’s degree of abandonment, and evokes the violin chord that scores much of this memoir. 

Over the course of a spring day, as Alexandra darts in and out of unpleasant encounters with her family, we are introduced to a heady blend of the key players and their relationships. Center stage: father, mother, mean uncle and aunt, bibulous grandmother, and French “harlot.” Offstage, but ever present, are the illustrious dead, all “famous,” “aristocratic,” and/or “bohemian” (Aldrich prefixing this triad of adjectives to their names with the diligence of a Page Six copy editor). Looming over all is Rokeby itself. This grand old demented dame plays the people who live within as astutely as Manderley does in Rebecca. She is the altar at which they gather and worship, for the mansion and the acreage represent what they feel they represent: American royalty. 

Aldrich makes clear the price paid, and draws the reader into Rokeby’s shabby-chic world of ghostly reception rooms, unswept hallways, and watchful, ancestral portraits. 

To keep the house as it was then, we sacrifice any resources that might have been invested in current generations. In return, the house gives each of us, the impoverished descendants, an identity. And we live off the remains of our ancestral grandeur.

An only child, Alexandra is an unhappy, bookish misfit, albeit with a healthy ego. She is untethered, and justifiably angry. Her mother and father are reluctant parents at best and treat her more like a lodger than a child. Alexandra dreams of “a three-bedroomed ranch house with employed parents, siblings, cable TV, and functional cars.” No one can blame her. 

Aldrich’s mother Ala, whom she describes as a “beautiful Polish woman with blue eyebrows and a truculent temper,” is “minimally interested in propriety or family” and spends her days drawing. Portrayed as a shrewish, bile-addled foreigner, she has seemingly little merit, other than a talent for turning a freshly killed deer into a month’s worth of venison stew in the blink of an eye. Teddy, Alexandra’s father, is like a dog on its back: goofy, affable, and not to be taken seriously. A “filthy gentleman farmer beloved by all,” he tools about the estate on a tractor, or in one of his decrepit cars. Teddy is berated 24/7 by his brother, wife, and mother. It seems no one can converse with him without railing, though he almost single-hand-edly runs the property. This persistent criticism of her father feels hackneyed, and Aldrich’s recalled dialogue tediously clichéd. Nor does it make him a sympathetic character.