The Giant’s House: A top-five all-time favorite ever

Even amongst voracious readers like us, there seems to be an air of decadence around re-reading books you’ve already read. How can you re-read something when there are so many books that you haven’t read yet? We ask. Or at least I ask. It seems so self-indulgent. And yet, here I am re-reading many books I’ve loved in my life. I set out on this re-reading journey, based on a conversation I had with Christa. You know Christa.

Plus, late November found me a super cranky reader. I had started and rejected five or six books after about thirty pages. (I’m happy to report that I’ve started going back to those rejects and discovered that it was me and not them.) It was these two factors that led me to pluck The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken from my shelf.

For most of my adult life, this book has been on the list of my Top 5 All-Time Favorite Books Ever (along with A Prayer for Owen Meany, Geek Love, Written on the Body, and one more that probably changes depending on my mood). So it was not without a little trepidation that I dove back into it. I was afraid. What if I was wrong? What if this is a book only a 23-year-old fresh from college would love? What if I had outgrown it?

My fear was for naught. The book is as beautiful and heartbreaking as I remember, if anything I had grown into it. Things that hadn’t struck me the first few times I’d read it really got me this time. This story of a spinster librarian and a giant boy had not grown stale or tarnished with age. Instead reading it felt like curling up in my favorite sweatshirt, so warm and comforting.

It feels weird to say that because re-reading The Giant’s House this time leveled me. At one point I was curled up in my bed crying my eyes out, and I knew what was going to happen and still it wrecked me.

The story takes place in the Cape Cod during the 50s and 60s and involves terminally-lonely, single librarian Peggy Cort, and James Sweatt, a boy who never stops growing. He’s the giant and the house in the title is his. From the time he walks into her library as an over-tall eleven-year-old, Peggy is captivated by James and the two begin an unlikely friendship. Over the years, Peggy weaves herself into James’s life and that of his family — his artist uncle, his depressed mother, his cheerful aunt.

Together these people from a strange bond and work to provide James as normal a lifestyle as they can manage for a 7 foot and then 8 foot boy turned man.

I can’t decide what I love most about this book. Is it Peggy’s loneliness that McCracken illustrates so beautifully?

“Not sad? To me she seemed like the saddest person in the world, a woman completely perplexed by her life and its trappings. Being myself a sad person, I recognized that much. My own sadness isn’t something I admit to people. If someone asked, yes, I think I might. If someone noticed and inquired, I would explain — I think I would explain — that I am a fundamentally sad person, a fundamentally unlovable person, a person who spends her life longing for a number of things she cannot bring herself to name or define. . .

Is it the way she chronicles the struggles of the abnormally tall? At one point McCracken writes about how James has to sit down to have a conversation with anyone. He’s so tall that he can’t hear anyone when he’s standing up. This small detail nailed me this time around. Though I’m only 6’5″, I find as I grow older and want to actually hear people at gathering and bars, I too often have to sit to hear people. The truth of that small detail is but a small sample of the kind of care you find in this story.

It’s all so captivating and beautiful, the way McCracken captures James’ otherness and the grace with which he accepts it and how Peggy tries so hard to make him feel like he belongs, because she so desperately wants to belong. And perhaps that’s what I love most about this book. That, much like Beezus and Ramona did when I was child, The Giant’s House reminds me that I am not alone, that there are ‘others’ and that is so comforting.

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  1. Amy 12.Dec.11 at 12:35 pm

    She’s an amazing writer. One of her stories is in the 2011 Best American Short Stories, and it’s my favorite of the whole batch.

    1. Jodi Chromey 12.Dec.11 at 12:37 pm

      @Amy, Oh man, I need to get my hands on the Best American.

      I’ve read both her novels, her short story collection, and her memoir and I love love love her.

  2. Amy 12.Dec.11 at 12:40 pm

    Definitely. It’s a good collection this year. Her story, and then her backstory of the story–excellent.

  3. Jodi Chromey 12.Dec.11 at 12:41 pm

    I used to read the Best Americans religiously and would wait for them each year with bated breath. But the year Stephen King edited it, I lost interest. I think there were a lot of stories in there I actively disliked and some that made me question how it even got published much less listed as “best.”

  4. Angela Scaletta 12.Dec.11 at 4:06 pm

    Elizabeth McCracken has a memoir?! ::adds to to-read list:: I loved GIANT’S HOUSE, too. She’s amazing.

  5. Jodi Chromey 12.Dec.11 at 4:08 pm

    Angela, it’s called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Approach with caution, it’s about the stillbirth of her first child and will wreck you. WRECK YOU!

    I read the whole thing in a single day and cried about 82,283 times.

  6. Claire 13.Dec.11 at 7:16 pm

    Wow. I’m adding this to my already too long wish list.


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