May 2010 - Helen Chappell


The House at Royal Oak
Helen Chappell


If you love the Eastern Shore, whether you live here or just come on weekends, you are going to love The House at Royal Oak, Carol Rizzoli’s book, that appears on the shelves this month. I’m a fan!
Here’s the backstory on why I love this book so much.
For more than 20 years, I drove past the small white house on the corner of Royal Oak and Thorneton Roads, and never saw it. Oh, I saw it: an old carpenter Gothic in the Eastern Shore tradition nestled among aging trees and plantings, gently declining into neglect. But I didn’t pay attention to it. It was just a part of the landscape on my drive from Bellevue to errands in St. Michaels. By training and by nature, I am supposed to notice things. Who lives there, the character of the house, the For Sale by Owner sign that hung on the iron fence for many years all escaped my notice.
I didn’t even take much note when the sign came down and the house was being renovated, although I was glad someone had found that white house with the single gable and the fretwork on the bay windows. Someone loved it enough to fix it up, and that made me happy as I passed. It was a charming house with fine bones, and now someone would care for it.
Then a discreet sign appeared by the driveway. Royal Oak House Bed and Breakfast, it announced. Oh, I thought as I drove back and forth, this is interesting. I wish I knew how to meet those people. Sure, as a writer, I could have just phoned them, but that seemed forward and tacky. You can only pull the I’m-a-writer-and-I’m-nosy act so many times.
But my wish was granted when mutual friends Scott and Susan Kilmon introduced me to Carol and Hugo Rizzoli, the new owners. The Rizzolis had come from the western shore with a background in literature and the arts. Hugo had owned a bookstore before training at L’Academie de Cuisine. Carol had not only published previous books, and numerous feature pieces, but had been a book editor at the Washington Post and editor of art books at the National Gallery. She also plays violin as time permits in the Dover Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Royal Oak resident Don Buxton.
In short, I felt an instant professional connection to them.
They invited me, together with other neighbors, for brunch at the bed and breakfast, where they showed off their incredible cooking skills (their signature muffins are swoon worthy for any foodie) and the beautifully renovated Victorian guest and public rooms. I felt as if Hugo, Carol and I had known each other forever, and were picking up from the last time we got together. They’re terrific friends; just ask anyone in Royal Oak who knows them. But their background in the arts and literature sealed the deal. It’s always nice to find someone you can talk shop with.
When Carol told me she was working on a memoir about the purchase, renovation and running of their bed and breakfast, I did something I never do. I offered to read the manuscript in progress.
There are a number of reasons I don’t read unpublished manuscripts. For legal, moral and time-crunching reasons I generally decline, but this time I had a hunch it was going to be good, and I was right. I can promise you The House at Royal Oak is a beautifully crafted, infinitely readable book about the Rizzolis’ adventures in starting a second life.
The enormous challenges they faced repairing the former parsonage included not just the usual powderpost beetles in the sills and workmen who disappear during deer and rockfish season, but also a nest of copperheads living under the back steps, among many other challenges. “The place was a layer cake of disasters, all frosted together,” Carol recalls.
“When I first saw the place,” Hugo said recently over lunch at Out of the Fire, “I just knew it was what I wanted. And between the first time we saw the place and today, it’s been ten years. This is our anniversary.”
Now the house and landscape glow as the result of their hard work and love for the place. It’s a warm, welcoming environment.
For me, much of the fascination with Carol’s book is seeing the world I know through another writer’s eyes. What she sees often agrees with what I’ve seen and experienced, and that she writes about local people just makes it all that much more interesting.
It’s so clear that she loves this area, loves Royal Oak and loves the friends they’ve made here, along with the slower life they’re able to lead on this side of the Bridge. She has a wonderful eye for the telling detail and a way with rich imagery that carries her vision without pretension or patronization, which is a great gift.
I picked up the manuscript one evening and couldn’t stop reading it until the very last word. Her observations on preservation, country living, nature and the traditions and customs of the village of Royal Oak are so lovingly laid out in this memoir, and so beautifully and authentically described, that I didn’t want it to end. She has really nailed what it’s like to live here. And the book has some wonderful recipes. Both Rizzolis are talented chefs.
I was also fascinated to learn that Carol had rented a small office in Easton in order to have the privacy and space to write. She truly did get Virginia Woolf’s legendary L500 a year and a room of her own. For me, used to writing any time and in any old outfit, the idea of getting up, getting dressed and going into town specifically to work on your writing spoke to a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to the project at hand that I really envy.
Through the months, I watched as Carol first acquired the all-important agent that anyone with aspirations to professional writing must have. Then, when that agent sold The House at Royal Oak to Black Dog & Leventhal, a division of Workman Publishing, for a healthy advance, I couldn’t have been happier. I knew this book was good enough for a real publisher, not some self-pub outfit, and it was nice to have my instincts justified. Keep an eye on this book. I think it has the potential to go places.
Personally, I owe Carol a huge debt, too. Seeing her working so hard inspired me to get back to my own book writing, which I’d laid aside for several years. A high tide, as they say in these parts, floats all boats.
This memoir is well worth reading. It’s not just the landscape, nature and the seasons and us locals she talks about, but an inside look at running a B&B.
“I was a completely clueless romantic,” Carol confesses. The B&B was more Hugo’s dream than hers, she adds. “I thought it would be growing herbs and arranging flowers, making blackberry muffins that the guests would oooh and ahhh over.” She smiles knowingly. “The reality is that it’s a lot of work and variable guests.”
Most of their guests, she’s quick to point out, are wonderful, but characters do crop up from time to time, like the party from an eastern European Union country who stole Hugo’s collection of jazz CDs.
But, in general, the Rizzolis agree that a small parsonage in the countryside attracts a certain kind of people who want that atmosphere and environment.
Carol admits she’s fascinated by the interactions between the from-heres and the come-heres. “This area is 90 miles from D.C., but it’s light years from that whole culture. The tranquility, the peace, those luminous green sunsets ... and it’s far less stratified in terms of socioeconomic groups. Different people are comfortable with each other and interact as friends. And we’re closer to nature here. The monarch butterflies and ospreys migrate through here, the stripers come in, the field behind our house is covered with buttercups in the spring.”
Before they found their house in Royal Oak, the Rizzolis stayed in about 120 bed and breakfast places, first as a hobby and then as a research project. “It was a way to get out of D.C.,” Hugo says. “I saw the house for sale and I said, ‘This is a good idea.’”
Hugo is secretary of the Maryland Bed and Breakfast Association. “The fact is economics are making it more and more difficult to sustain a B&B. As a result, the numbers are declining. There were 20,000 five years ago in the U.S., and only 17,000 now. My approach,” he says, “was to find an undervalued property in an appealing neighborhood, nurture it back to life and start the business from scratch. For me, this was, and is, a viable concept.”
“It’s typically a compromise,” Carol says, when a couple decides to start a bed and breakfast. One instigates, the other goes along. Hugo wanted this, and I went along. Besides, I got to tell the story.”