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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"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.

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. 

At 14, Alexandra gets her wish, as her escape from the stranglehold of Rokeby comes in the form of boarding school. As she climbs to the tower of the Big House to say farewell to the realm, we get a glimpse of the writer she will become:

From here, I could see the parts of Rokeby I loved and knew so well—the forest paths and streams; the niches in the brush where I used to hide and chase wild rabbits. .  .  . I loved those days—before I’d grown stern and angry, before I’d turned my back on the squalor at Rokeby as an enemy against which I felt compelled to build a fortress of order, hygiene, and self-discipline. I loved those days when my cousins and I used to run around the property all summer long, unsupervised, shirtless, barefoot, wild little orphans all.

Alexandra Aldrich has written a poignant story that lays bare a woman’s search for self-explanation. Readers will enjoy a glimpse into America’s Gilded Age and relish the descriptions of Rokeby, if not its state of deterioration. Alexandra’s situation, steeped as it is in bathos, will undoubtedly appeal to anyone who has felt wronged as a child. Absent from The Astor Orphan, however, is real humor, or the self-deprecation and clear-eyed accounting that buoy the writing of Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls. Missing, too, is the ruthlessness that can make for a riveting memoir.

Wendy Burden is the author of Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir.