Quick Review: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman

Book 3 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★★

  • Highly recommended if the story of one man’s accumulation of wealth and his daughter’s peculiar handling of it throughout the 20th century intrigues you 
    • In the reader’s guide at the end of the book, Dedman describes the main threads of the story as “the costs of ambition, the burdens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone’s life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger” (579)
  • Largely a biography but with a bit more spunk, as the author examines all the characters involved in the fight over Huguette’s will. 
  • First impression: “Ooh, I love it, it’s already like a moody novel about rich people. BUT IT’S REAL.”
  • What struck me most about this book is the absurdity and luxury of such wealth. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have that much money. How does someone get so rich?? How do they decide what to do with all that money?? Unbelievable. And to think there are far, far richer people today…
    • Sooooo much extravagance!! I scrunched my eyes tight trying to imagine how much $220,000 was worth in the 1890s or how big a 121 room house is.
    • And there’s the china set – 900 pieces worth $3 million today. What does it look like? What’s it made from? What kind of pieces are included? Why do you need 900 of them? (7%)
    • Oh god, the description of the library (same page as above). The libraries of wealthy people will never cease fascinate me.
    • I nearly squealed while reading about what happens to Clark’s grand mansion (the house on the cover) (169).
  • Huguette’s interest in Japan was timely for me. At the same time I read about Huguette explaining Hina Matsuri to Paul (244), I was visiting an immense Hina Matsuri display where over 30,000 dolls were on view.
  • Huguette is an intriguing woman. It’s difficult to truly understand her as the reader comes to know her only through the stories others tell about her. It’s impossible to draw any clear conclusions as to whether she was mentally ill (perhaps on the autism spectrum) or just a happy woman living how she desired.
    • Later in the book, as I read about Huguette’s final 20 years, I found her story becoming more poignant. I thought, “Oh, that’s a bit sad. I don’t want to age to a point where all I can do is look back and try to preserve the life I had long before.”
    • Huguette is immensely charitable (she gives tens of millions of dollars to her nurse and the nurse’s family), to the extent that the climax of her tale is built around whether she was being taken advantage of. I understand this is where the tension in the story lies – in the fight over Huguette’s will – but I didn’t really like how the authors present the people involved. Which I think deserves a bullet point all on it’s own, so moving on!
  • Dedman strives to present unbiased portrayals of Huguette, her family and her assistants (or at least, he presents both the positive and negative views of all the players involved). However, I didn’t like the tone that resulted. (It’s a bit difficult to describe…If you read the book, please let me know if you understand what I’m trying to get at.) He presents all the ‘evidence’ but stops short of suggesting one conclusion or the other. I guess that’s the way to present both views in order to let the reader draw a conclusion for themself, but there’s something a bit off about the way he does this. It’s not really balanced. I suppose there’s to be some fun for the reader in deciding who is deserving of Huguette’s generosity, but I don’t like to do that. It’s too bad I can’t just ‘know’… (Though I suppose the main takeaway is don’t judge people you don’t know, ultimately.)
    • For example: Okay, so you’re saying Huguette is old and in a hospital and maybe a little mentally broken, you’re one sentence away from saying “She’s a crazy old lady”. But then on another page, there’s the complete opposite side – she’s sweet, she’s mentally capable, she knows what she’s doing, you’re on sentence away from saying “She was perfectly fine.” These views are presented as separate, like the author leads you to one conclusion and then to another. It feels like he wants you to decide something, then he can say, “Well, you said it, not me.”
    • In other places, the information presented just felt rude to me. I wanted to say “Butt out, you didn’t know this lady! Why is this the public’s business?” I get that such information would probably become relevant later on when he discussed the fight over the will, but I would have liked that to be made clear. At times it feels like he just laid out information so we, the unknowing public, could gawk at the people involved.
    • Moments like this don’t make up the bulk of the story (for the most part, it’s well-written) but when they did crop up I felt a little annoyed (and maybe that partially comes from my own guilt at being so fascinated by one little old lady’s private life).