Book Review: "The House at Royal Oak" by Carol Eron Rizzoli

By: Elaine Vitone , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings, In The News

A friend in the publishing industry sent me a review copy of a new memoir she thought might interest me and my fellow old-home-enthusiasts: The House at Royal Oak: Starting Over, Renovating a Rickety Victorian, and Rebuilding a Life One Room at a Time. The majority of B&Bs, after all, are housed in buildings over 75 years old.

In the spring of 2001, Rizzoli and her husband Hugo—an editor and a former bookstore owner, respectively—set out to establish a bed-and-breakfast in their midlife years. Their journey through harrowing encounters with wildlife, shifty contractors, hurricane winds, cityfolk-wary locals, and of course plenty of construction dust resulted in Royal Oak House Bed & Breakfast in St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay.

This book is full of moments with which DIY-indentured types can easily identify: the savior complex (and inevitable buyer’s remorse) of people who are crazy enough to purchase property that’s overgrown with nature and overtaken by ne’er-do-wells; the renovation budget and timeline (scribbled on a napkin!) that quickly becomes laughable; the bone-tired drudgery of the work “they fast-forward on home-restoration TV shows”; and the decline of living quarters to “a confusion of power tools, laundry, paperwork, suitcases, and dirty dishes.”

Personally, I have to think the innkeeper’s life sounds like a little piece of hell on Earth (in Rizzoli’s words, it’s “a slow-motion juggling act with the roles of chef, gardener, handyperson, psychologist, marketing specialist, bookkeeper, plumber, and at-ease host all vying for attention”). I mean: Why anyone would want to work that hard to fix up a beautiful old house, only to have to share it with a revolving cast of strangers is beyond me. But hers is a path that takes fortitude, and she deserves props for that.

Rizzoli’s memoir is an example of my favorite kind of nonfiction narrative, the kind that’s such a pleasure to read that I hardly realize I’m learning quite a lot along the way. Between passages about her journey, she expounds on the struggling local ecosystem, the history of the region dating all the way back to the 18th century, and the joys and pains of living in a small town. Perhaps most fascinating of all was her insider’s take on American Bed and Breakfasts, a dying breed (the average age of innkeepers is over 55, and the average length of bed-and-breakfast ownership is seven years), not to mention the people it serves. The fact that prospective guests phone Rizzoli’s idyllic retreat asking about WiFi, computers, voice mail, and flat-screen TVs is a sad commentary on our culture.

As an epilogue, Rizzoli includes the recipes for the dishes that she and Hugo serve their guests—tantalizing spreads indeed, by the sounds of things. She ends with a section entitled, “Eight Good Reasons to Start a Bed-and-Breakfast and Seven Bad Ones.”

Overall, it’s a nice story about daring to chase a dream, perfect for anyone who’s ever vacationed at a sweet little inn and wondered what it would be like to stay for good. (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 272 pages, $28.95, publication date May 2010).