The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – frozen in the past
After the first experience of Ann Patchett’s fiction, via the magnificent Bel Canto, my expectations were riding high when I embarked on her most recent novel, The Dutch House.
This is a multi-layered family drama; a modern day fairy tale complete with evil stepmother, children cast adrift into the world and a house that bears witness to two disastrous marriages.
The “Dutch House” – named for the origins of its first owners – is a highly-desirable estate in the Philadelphia suburbs. When the owners go bankrupt in 1946, the building, servants and its full array of silk chairs, tapestry ottomans, Chinese lamps and oil paintings, are snaffled up by an ambitious real estate developer.
Cyril Conroy sees the purchase as a way to catapult his family from their life of modest income to one of status and wealth. His wife, Elna knows nothing of this purchase until it’s a done deal. She hates the place, insisting that she has “no business in a place like that, all those fireplaces and staircases, all those people waiting on me.” Overawed by the house, she grows thinner and paler, “turning into a ghost”. One day she packs her bags and heads off to help the destitute in India, leaving behind her three-year-old son Danny and his sister Maeve, aged 10.
The kids grow up under the watchful eyes of two warm-hearted servants, the cook and her housekeeper sister. Their father is largely absent from their lives, spending most of his time on his business. But the pair don’t really miss him or their father; it’s enough that they have each other.
The spanner in the works is the arrival of a stepmother and her two young daughters. Before long Maeve is banished to an attic bedroom and her old sun-drenched bedroom is taken over for her step-sisters. It’s the first of many signals that Mrs Conroy mark two resents her step-children.
Enter the “evil” step mother
When Cyril Conroy dies suddenly, she seizes her opportunity; Maeve and Danny are exiled from the house and given to understand they are never to return. They inherit nothing from their father’s estate beyond an educational trust shared with their step-sisters. All they have is each other.
This unshakable bond saves their lives but Patchett also shows how it thwarts their futures.
As adults they often return to the street of their childhood, parking outside the Dutch House to smoke and reminisce about the house they consider rightfully theirs. This ritual is the framework for conversations in which they try to make sense of the fragments of information they’ve gleaned over the years about their parents. But there’s always an element of uncertainty about what is truth and what have they imagined.
“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” asks Danny on one occasion. “We look back through the lens of what we know now,” he decides, “so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
Maeve is acerbic, self-assured and so determined to get revenge on the stepmother, that she pushes her brother to pursue a medical degree he has no interest in, purely to milk the educational trust and leave nothing for the step-sisters. Danny is in such thrall to her that for years he goes along with the plan when all he really wants to do is renovate neglected properties.
Danny does eventually break free of the future Maeve has mapped out for him but she seems permanently frozen in the past. She never moves out of the area, never marries and works for the same company her whole career (a bit obviously, her employer is a frozen foods firm).
With its polished prose, closely-controlled looping time-line and the wonderfully atmospheric setting of the Dutch House, this novel had a lot going for it.
The star of the show was undoubtedly the mansion itself; an edifice of neo-classical, Mediterranean and Dutch design that appeared to “float several inches above the hill” with huge windows reflecting the sun onto the surrounding lawn and linden trees. As the novel progresses we come to find that this is a house full of dark secrets.
Sunshine and Secrets
i confess that at times in the middle of this novel I found the two principal characters extremely irritating. Decades after their eviction from the Dutch House they are still physically compelled to return, a pattern of behaviour which began to feel indulgent. Danny, the narrator of this story, accepts as much, reflecting that “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.”
But by the end of the book, after we witness a few more twists in their histories, I’d come around to viewing this unfortunate pair more sympathetically. Ultimately the novel acknowledges that dwelling too much on the past can lead to emotional stagnation yet the complex process of extracting oneself from that past is painful and slow with plenty of opportunities for mistakes and wrong turns along the way.
Despite my reservations about the characters of Danny and Maeve, I ended up being fascinated by the book’s depiction of their relationship. The Dutch House didn’t have the drama of Bel Canto but it was no less intense in its emotional intensity .
20 thoughts on “The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – frozen in the past”
I loved this book and haven’t read nearly enough of Patchett’s other books. I listened to the audio and Tom Hanks was fantastic – I thought he might be distracting but he really became Danny. I love themes about memory and family, and good complicated sibling relationships.
I loved this book more than I thought I would. Like you, I had read Bel Canto and didn’t know how it could be bettered. The only way past such thinking is to write something completely different of course!
I loved having the house as a character and the three sets of siblings that gradually emerged – four, if you also count Danny’s children at the end.
When writing my post, I came across this quote that explained how Patchett was inspired by something Zadie Smith said about step mothers and writing autobiographical fiction,
“She was saying that autobiographical fiction didn’t have to be about what happened — it could be about what you were afraid might happen. She said the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because that was the mother she didn’t want to be. I thought that was brilliant. It explained something I’d always been doing but had never put into words. I adore Zadie Smith. At that moment, sitting on a stage with her at Belmont University, I thought, I want to write a book about the kind of stepmother I don’t want to be.”
That cover looks so familiar and your summary so unfamiliar that I’m guessing each time I went to pick it up I thought I’d already read it. I have read Commonwealth though, which I really enjoyed.
Commonwealth is on my shelves too. I would have read that one first but Dutch House was a book club choice.
I found this such an absorbing novel. Those huge glass windows seemed only to emphasise what an emotional prison the house became for Maeve, staring out at the world rather than becoming a part of it.
That’s such a good point, the house might have been beautiful but it also struck me as being rather sombre (those portraits of the original owners looking rather stern)
Lovely review Karen, I liked this book a lot.
I haven’t read the book but I saw a fascinating interview last summer in which Louise Erdich interviewed Patchett and Patchett interviewed Erdrich. It was striking to see how differently the two authors approach their work. They learned surprising things about each other and about each other’s techniques that neither had ever imagined. Erdrich talked about what she loved from The Dutch House and Patchett talked about what she loved about The Night Watchman. I think you can find their conversation on the BookPassages website.
I’m going to go in search of that interview Carol, it does sound fascinating
Great. I hope it’s still available for streaming let me know if you find it what you thought.
I must read this, I like books that feature houses as a character!
I’m going to be interested to see what you make of those two offspring…..
I’m already pleased to note that I myself have only one!
Lovely review! I’m a big Ann Patchett fan (have read most of her novels) and particularly enjoyed this one. My memory is a little rusty on this point, but I believe Patchett (who grew up in a blended family) has said that she’s been writing the same story throughout her career, i.e., how strangers are thrown together by chance and, for survival, have to learn to depend on one another, to form a family, in order to survive (think hostage situation in Bel Canto). I agree with you that the two main characters in this novel could be irritatingly stuck in the past, but, as you note, that’s probably one of the points Patchett is trying to make. I was interested that many reviewers considered Maeve a saintly character, which wasn’t my take on her at all; if anything, I thought her inability to forgive and move on did a huge amount of damage on her brother’s life.
Although it’s probably impossible to top Bel Canto, Patchett just seems to get better and better. Commonwealth, which I think immediately preceded The Dutch House, is another great story of the unexpected and moving ways in which people form “families.”
I don’t see Maeve as a saintly character at all – I suppose the people who came up with that description were thinking of her as showing self sacrifice, putting her brother’s future ahead of her own. But if she was really thinking of him. she wouldn’t have pushed him into a career he didn’t care for. I do have a copy of Commonwealth somewhere – shall look forward to this
Adult children can be held hostage to their dysfunctional childhoods! The themes were so well done (rich discussion possibilities for book club!) …listening to the audio version performed by Tom Hanks enhanced the story. He IS Danny…I think I might not have enjoyed the story as much reading it in print. Nice review!
I see this book pop up again and again. I need to read it. It sounds so interesting. 🐧🌻
It does give you a lot to think about which is what I love to find in fiction
I loved this book and thought the fairy tale themes were beautifully done.
The stepmother wasn’t as clearly depicted as i thought she could have been – it wasn’t clear initially, to me at least, why she was so horrid