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Islands in the dream

Dark Harbor Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island Ved Mehta Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books: 272 pp., $24.95 * Frankie's Place A Love Story Jim Sterba Grove Press: 274 pp., $23

September 14, 2003|Benita Eisler | Benita Eisler is the author of biographies of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Byron and Chopin.

Since the early 19th century, well-off Americans have fled hot cities for cooler second homes, often passed on through generations of the same family. But it's fair to say that no other "Summer Domiciles" -- as the Social Register once listed them -- confer anything like the status of places on the Northeast coast of the United States. Two seasonal memoirs pay homage to the particular mystique of Maine islands. Both are written by outsiders whose narratives end with their having achieved acceptance and a sense of belonging. Both authors are men who arrived at this estate by marrying women of inherited wealth and social position, and both are journalists.

In "Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island," Ved Mehta, the former New Yorker staff writer, continues the autobiographical chronicle that began with his family's flight from what is now Pakistan; his sufferings in a Little Rock, Ark., boarding school for the blind; the change of luck that led to Oxford and Harvard; and the career that launched him into the center of New York social and intellectual life. This latest chapter of his ongoing memoir sees the writer established, with a wife and family and a summer place in Maine. The "enchantment" in his title, however, has less to do with the natural beauty of Islesboro -- the island on which Dark Harbor is the one village -- than with its locus as a bastion of the very rich. "I had the fascination with money and moneyed people of someone who had been brought up in a poor country," he tells us at the outset. Although Mehta acknowledges the costs of this fascination, the benefits clearly have outweighed the liabilities: "I enjoyed hobnobbing with the rich, as if association with them in itself could be nourishing and there were no price to pay for it, as if I could be wined and dined by them and still keep sacrosanct the plain-fare values of my vocation."

During the late 1960s, through his friendship with Annette Engelhard Reed, daughter of the precious metals magnate, he begins spending weekends in Dark Harbor. Whisked by corporate jet, followed by small private plane, to the Reeds' island estate, Mehta is hooked by the combination of unspoiled nature and social cachet. He determines to buy a parcel of waterfront land and wait until he can afford to build a simple cabin. During subsequent visits to the Reeds, he discovers the perfect plot. The only hitch is the price: $70,000 (Mehta is always refreshingly specific about what things cost), out of the question on his salary and small assets. Mrs. Reed comes to the rescue. Offering first to buy it jointly with Mehta, she then reveals that it was to be a gift all along. Alas, a parting one, as it turns out. Mehta feels patronized, insulted; he keeps the land but the friendship is over.

His benefactress gone, the writer is left with the far more costly problem of affordable housing. His romance of a primitive cabin turns out to be just that. Blind since early childhood, Mehta has requirements of access and interior plan that do not admit of a simple prefab solution. He decides to go for broke and solicit plans from the noted architect Edward Larrabee Barnes; drawings, site visits by contractors, a road builder and landscape architects follow. The bills are mounting before any contract is signed. The final estimate (less architects' fees) is $200,000, with $20,000 to $30,000 payable monthly. Terrified, Mehta would have canceled but for a happy change in his life. Another heiress had materialized. This one became his wife.

There were obstacles. His bride, Linn Cooper Cary, if scarcely in the Engelhard bracket, had far grander family connections. Her mother disapproved: There was the difference in their backgrounds and ages -- he was 49, his wife-to-be 28 -- and, not least, his disability. About the last, Mehta is sympathetic: He wouldn't want his own daughter to marry a blind man, he says. Finally, love conquers all, including the cost of a summer place. After conferring with Cary's trust lawyers, Mehta agrees to deed half the land to her; in exchange, she will bear half the expenses of construction. Now begins the familiar saga of cost overruns and wrangles with contractors, architects and suppliers. Finally, the house is built, but not without strains on the marriage.

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