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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – frozen in the past

Cover of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, a modern version of an old fairy tale complete with wicked stepmother

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 .


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