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
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Aldrich and her parents share the “Big House” with Teddy’s older brother Harry, his wife Olivia, and their two little girls. Unlike Teddy, Harry has a nine-to-five job and provides his children with all of the niceties that Alexandra, the “poor cousin,” longs for. Each family has its own territory: Alexandra and her parents, the third floor in the “servants quarters”; Uncle Harry’s brood, the sunny north end of the house. Aldrich describes the back hallway leading to her family’s floor as “the point where Rokeby’s three worlds converged: the lonely squalor of the third floor, the elegant formality of the front rooms, and the smug coziness of Aunt Olivia’s domain.” Though she feels unwelcome, she regularly visits her younger cousins in their perfect apartment, where she can’t help but order them around, though it gets her into trouble. Like father, like daughter; Alexandra is constantly being upbraided by her relatives. 

She also shares his strong sense of entitlement. In an affecting scene, the two younger cousins don vintage robes and rustle through the mansion, flopping about on couches in a reenactment of Rokeby’s glory days, under the theatrical direction of Alexandra, who drills them on Astor genealogy while producing Beethoven with her violin. 

Though Alexandra’s parents seem determined to shake her off, Grandma Claire, matriarch and chatelaine of Rokeby, willingly provides a haven in her comfortable, if messy, house. There, Alexandra finds food, television, books, and Talbots catalogues. Grandma Claire buys her clothes and ferries her granddaughter to violin lessons and recitals, parties and church. I particularly loved Aldrich’s description of the “lemon yellow Plymouth” in which Grandma Claire sails about. Her character is perhaps the most thoughtfully delineated, and though Alexandra ultimately feels abandoned by her, the portrayal of this complicated woman is sincere, even affectionate. 

To compensate for the shame she feels about her living quarters and her parents and, well, everything, Alexandra focuses on her lineage and her intelligence: “In my mind,” she writes, “I, too, was a guard of order, perpetuating the family’s image of class and refinement with my violin playing and outstanding academic record.” Adhering to a regimented routine, she pushes herself to excel at school and at her music. Structure is her lifeline, so when school lets out for summer, Alexandra is as blue as the blood of her forebears. 

Enter the French adulteress to make matters worse. Giselle, a particular friend of Alexandra’s father who arrives in a red Fiat on that first long day of introduction, wedges herself firmly within the family unit. Rokeby being not unlike a sixties commune (minus the collective energy), no one seems to give much of a damn, save Grandma Claire and Alexandra. That Alexandra’s father could be anyone’s love interest is a wonder, because Teddy is inordinately unhygienic. 

Filth is not your average byproduct of erudition, and though Alexandra’s father attended “elite private schools, then Harvard, and Johns Hopkins,” he apparently never learned to wash. Alexandra may “shiver with disgust at the layer of hardened white grease in the cast-iron frying pan and the mouse droppings sprinkled about” in her grandmother’s kitchen, but in a fascinatingly grisly scene, she has no problem with giving her father a pedicure at the kitchen table during lunch: “His toenails were thick and yellow like seashells, each with a dense layer of dirt and grease underneath. After clipping the end of each nail, I also dug under it with the metal file and scraped out the black dirt.” 

As summer progresses, Rokeby comes to life with annual visitations from cousins, as well as tenant pageants, square dancing, picnics, and swimming. Despite the distractions, there is continued upheaval in Alexandra’s life. Late one evening she hears Giselle laughing in her father’s bedroom next door. (That is about the juiciest detail we get.) Alexandra’s fears are confirmed, and she is devastated.

But wait; there’s more. Just when things couldn’t get worse, Grandma Claire, Alexandra’s rock, lands in the intensive-care unit with alcohol poisoning, and is shipped off to rehab. It is impossible not to feel hurt and angry right alongside Alexandra—not the least for this child’s premature exposure to adult themes. The kid is, after all, only 10. 

Still, as everyone seems to be implicated in Alexandra’s misery, it becomes difficult to root for her. Indeed, it is not until the end, when—all hail the chemical wonder of puberty—in a ritualistic scene involving makeup and clothing and kissing pimply, undeserving youths, Alexandra drops the blueblood fixation, exits the pity party, and subscribes to a different social register—that of the seventh grade. It is a brief respite; but a satisfying, cleverly written one. And it elicits real compassion.