Reading New England: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

Posted February 12, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 20 Comments

Eric Hodgins, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)

MrBlandingsThe tale of Mr. Blandings is briefly told: A successful New York advertising executive is suddenly seized with the wish for a country retreat for his family. He finds an old house he loves on a hill in Connecticut, but after paying far too much for it he learns it’s not worth fixing and that he’d better tear it down and build a new one. Costly misadventures with contractors, builders, bankers, lawyers, and other rapacious members of the home ownership business ensue, after which Mr. Blandings at last has the house of his dreams — and some new nightmares.

If you’ve suffered through much the same trials as Mr. B. — and even after 70 years, I don’t think they have changed that much — you may find them hilarious in retrospect, or unbearably painful. Drunken workers, missing equipment orders, mysterious “extras” on the contractor’s bill, expensive changes made in response to casual remarks by one’s unwitting wife…there’s not much on the “plus” side to balance out such disasters, so you’d better laugh if you don’t want to finish the book in tears.

from the film - found here
Construction scene from the film – found here

The main theme throughout is how much more everything costs than expected — about five times as much. In today’s money, a house that should have cost maybe $200,000 ends up at almost a million. This may seem incredible, but it’s exactly what happened to the book’s author, who nearly went bankrupt building his own “dream house” in New Milford, Connecticut, and had to sell it at a loss just two years later. That may be why the book’s humor is somewhat weighed down by an aura of bitterness.

I confess to finding this constant harping on finances to be somewhat annoying, coming from a very wealthy person who often as not had only his own extravagance to blame for his problems. I liked the book better when Hodgins got away from the money theme, as when Mrs B. tries to describe the paint colors she wants to the contractors (“If you’ll send one of your workmen to the A&P for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong”) or when Mr. B. is assaulted by Republican canvassers while trapped in an unfinished bathroom. Such incidents are easier to relate to for those of us who don’t have millions to throw away on our dreams.

In a further ironic twist, after selling the movie rights for $200,000 (over $2 million today), Hodgins tried to buy his house back, but didn’t succeed. The house still stands, and the current owners are quite proud of its heritage, even preserving the butter-yellow dining room. The film, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, became a classic and according to many is better than the book; the house built in California for the movie set is also still there, used as the headquarters for the Malibu State Park. In a further metafictional twist, replicas were built around the country as a promotional gimmick — here’s one in Portland, Oregon. And so the dream lives on…

Reading New England: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream HouseMr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins
Published by Simon & Schuster in 1946
Format: Hardcover from Library

 

Reading New England Challenge: Fiction
Back to the Classics Challenge: 20th Century Classic
Classics Club List #46

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20 responses to “Reading New England: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

  1. Sounds like I’d be better off watching the film, Lory, rather than losing sympathy for the narrator’s self-inflicted plights! (The phrase “poor little rich boy” comes to mind …)

  2. This sounds entertaining, but after reading the post (linked under your construction photo), I might rather just see the movie. I suspect I might also feel pretty annoyed reading about rich people complain about money problems.
    I loved the history and background information you included about the book!

    • It was interesting — I would be curious to see the real house, but I don’t imagine the owners are happy to have gawkers stopping by.

  3. I love the Cary Grant movie; it IS funny (maybe because the money is not the main focus). I had thought about reading this one for Connecticut, but now I am thinking that I might pick a different book. In a for me unusual twist, I don’t want the book to spoil the movie for me.

    • I’m glad to know that about the movie! I don’t think this is the best book to represent Connecticut, even though I’m counting it for the challenge. Mostly it could have been happening anywhere.

  4. I have seen the movie several times and it is really good and entertaining. It seems they left the annoying bits out of it. Still, I hand it to you for plowing through the book! And thanks for the info about the houses based on the one in the movie. I find that fascinating.

    • It wasn’t a huge chore to read — I did find it amusing, but the one-sidedness of the humor became tiring. I’m excited to see the movie now.

    • I guess it boils down to human nature — the technology has changed for the materials, but contractors and builders are still building houses.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Bree, and I’m glad you like the blog design as well as being inspired to pick up this book. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie so I can compare them.

  5. I’m not sure I entirely understand the story here. Is this about a real house that the author actually owned at one point? I’m a little jetlagged right now, so I apologize if that’s a silly question 🙂

    • Sorry to be confusing – it’s a novel about the fictional “Mr. Blandings” building a house in Connecticut, closely based on real experiences that the author had building his own dream house. I imagine there’s some exaggeration involved, but the cost overruns were completely real and resulted in Hodgins having to sell the house to avoid bankruptcy.

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