Tracy Kidder's Book About Building a House

A Book Review by Jackie Craven

New house construction, wood beams, saws
House Construction. Photo by Huntstock / Getty Images

House by Tracy Kidder is the compelling true story of the construction of a home in Massachusetts. He takes his time with details, describing it all in over 300 pages—the evolution of the design, the negotiations with builders, the groundbreaking, and the roof raising. But, don't look to this book for floor plans or building instructions. Instead, author Tracy Kidder focuses on the human aspirations and struggles behind the project.

Facts That Read Like Fiction

Tracy Kidder is a journalist who is renown for his literary nonfiction. He reports on actual events and real people by creating a story for the reader. His books include the best-selling Soul of a New Machine, Home Town, Old Friends, and Among School Children. When Kidder worked on House, he immersed himself into the lives of the key players, listening to their squabbles and recording minute details of their lives. He is a reporter who tells us the story.

The result is a non-fiction work that reads like a novel. As the tale unfolds, we meet the clients, the carpenters, and the architect. We eavesdrop on their conversations, learn about their families, and peek into their dreams and self-doubts. Personalities often clash. The complex dynamics are dramatized in five sections, spanning from the signing of the contract to the moving day and the uneasy final negotiations.

If the story seems real, it's because it is real life.

Architecture as Drama

House is about people, not floor plans. Tensions mount as contractor and client quibble over small sums. The architect's search for an ideal design and the client's selection of decorative details take on a sense of rising urgency.

As each scene unfolds, it becomes apparent that House is not only the story of a building: The construction project is the framework for exploring what happens when we put a running meter on a dream.

Truth Behind the Story

Although House reads like a novel, the book includes just enough technical information to satisfy a reader's architectural curiosity. Tracy Kidder researched the economics of housing, the properties of lumber, the architectural styles of New England, Jewish building rituals, the sociology of building, and the development of architecture as a profession. Kidder's discussion of the importance of Greek Revival styles in America could stand on its own as a classroom reference.

Yet, as a testament to Kidder's craftsmanship, the technical details do not bog down the "plot" of the story. History, sociology, science, and design theory are woven seamlessly into the narrative. A comprehensive bibliography closes the book. You can get a flavor for Kidder's prose in a short excerpt published in The Atlantic, September 1985.

Decades later, well after Kidder's book and the house was built, the reader can continue the story, because, after all, this is nonfiction. Kidder already had a Pulitzer Prize under his belt when he took on this project.

Fast forward to the homeowner, lawyer Jonathan Z. Souweine, who died of leukemia in 2009 at the young age of 61. The architect, Bill Rawn, went on to create an impressive portfolio for William Rawn Associates after this venture, his first residential commission. And the local building crew? They wrote their own book called The Apple Corps Guide to the Well-Built House. Good for them.

The Bottom Line

You won't find how-to instructions or construction manuals in House. This is the book to read for insight into the emotional and psychological challenges of building a home in 1980s New England. It is the story of well-educated, well-to-do people from a specific time and place. It will not be everyone's story.

If you are now in the midst of a building project, House may strike a painful chord. The financial woes, the strained tempers, and the deliberation over details will seem uncomfortably familiar.

And, if you are dreaming of building a home or pursuing a career in the building professions, watch out: House will shatter any romantic illusions you may have.

But while the book spoils the romance, it may save your marriage ... or at least, your pocketbook.

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Originally published by Houghton Mifflin, October 1985, House has become a staple at library book sales. Paperback by Mariner Books, 1999. ~Reviewed by Jackie Craven

Related Books:

  • The Apple Corps Guide to the Well-Built House by Jim Locke, 1988
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  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton, 2008
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  • Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2008
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  • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, 1981, 2000
    Buy on Amazon
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Craven, Jackie. "Tracy Kidder's Book About Building a House." ThoughtCo, Feb. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/tracy-kidders-book-building-a-house-178259. Craven, Jackie. (2017, February 10). Tracy Kidder's Book About Building a House. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tracy-kidders-book-building-a-house-178259 Craven, Jackie. "Tracy Kidder's Book About Building a House." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tracy-kidders-book-building-a-house-178259 (accessed October 21, 2017).