Destination: Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, New England, United States
Books: The Giant’s House: A Romance by Elizabeth McCracken
A GUEST POST by Alexandra Grabbe
Alexandra is not only a traveler herself, but runs a bed and breakfast on Cape Cod, in case you need a place to stay after this novel inspires you to travel there.
I met Elizabeth McCracken last year when she spent a weekend at my B&B. Reading her latest book, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, sent me off to the library in search of The Giant’s House: A Romance, published in 1996.
Elizabeth was twice a fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Works Center on Cape Cod and worked as a librarian for a number of years. She may have based the library in the book on the public library here in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Nobody but Elizabeth knows for sure and she’s not telling.
In her first novel, Elizabeth McCracken lets her imagination run wild, and we traipse after her down a quirky side street in a fictitious Cape Cod town, charmed both by the characters she has created and her skill at storytelling.
Here’s the plot: Peggy Cort, a lonely twenty-six-year-old librarian heading toward spinsterhood, takes a personal interest in James Carlson Sweatt, a gentle bookworm, already quite tall at age eleven, who will grow into a gentle giant, eight feet seven inches, and become the tallest man in the world.
Peggy’s passion for James evolves from curiosity to admiration to love, which she does not express until 1960, a decade after their initial meeting beside the circulation desk. And, yes, there’s romance, as the title indicates. Oh, I know. The whole thing sounds highly unlikely, and yet it works. James has gigantism, a rare disease, which happens to be fatal. Their unique friendship allows him to explore his feelings on being different.
The real Cape Cod I know and love is rendered with precision. We see the Provincetown bar where James’ mother, abandoned by her husband, drinks a bit too hard, the quaint little town of “Brewsterville” where Peggy and James live, the strip malls of Hyannis where custom shoes are provided in ever-greater sizes in exchange for appearances as THE WORLD’S TALLEST BOY, a gig Peggy sees, at first, as exploitation.
There’s even a chapter set in Wellfleet, my home town. The pace on Cape Cod, in the off-season, is so different from the tourist rush of summer that it’s refreshing to find an accurate description, as if a photographer had focused in on the weathered face of a single shell fisherman working the flats rather than vacationers at play in the same picturesque harbor.
Cape Cod houses, with their low ceilings, are not ideal for giants, so it’s perfectly plausible that James’ family would move him into larger quarters in a back yard cottage, custom-built thanks to money raised by Peggy, during a campaign similar to one organized here three years ago to pay medical bills incurred by a favorite son, injured in a skateboard accident.
Soon the Brewsterville locals are dropping by, hoping for a glimpse of the greatest attraction in town. Of course, the tourists follow.
Some people came out specifically to visit James; some came for the ocean and happened upon him, more impressive than the ocean because no philosopher ever wonderingly addressed him, no poet compared him to God or a lover’s restless body. Moreover, the ocean does not grant autographs. James did, politely, and then asked how you were enjoying your visit.
That James’s Aunt Caroline should turn his cottage, with its custom furniture, into a museum seems the logical conclusion, but it is the tender relationship between two misfits that we remember months after finishing this exquisitely rendered novel. The Giant’s House: A Romance has been called a “small masterpiece,” and I agree.
Alexandra Grabbe raised three children in Paris, France, where she worked as a freelance writer, a talk-show host, and an editorial assistant. She moved to Wellfleet, MA in 1997 to care for her elderly parents. Six years ago, Alexandra started Chez Sven Bed & Breakfast. She blogs about the experience of being an innkeeper and living green on Cape Cod.
Alexandra: Thanks so much for bringing this novel to our attention. And I want to commend Alexandra for her support of books, independent book sellers and writers. She buys books by the best new authors and places them in her B & B for her guests to enjoy. Way to go, Alexandara!