The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Before I start to talk about Ann Patchett’s wonderful novel The Dutch House, just a quick note to say that, like many of you, I am feeling very worried and stressed about the current situation in the world. I’m still reading but struggling to find the enthusiasm for writing blog posts at the moment. I do have a stock of reviews already written which I will schedule in over the next few weeks, but if I’m slow to reply to comments or to comment on your blogs in return, I’m not ignoring you – just finding it hard to concentrate and get motivated.

Anyway, back to The Dutch House…I’ve been aware of Ann Patchett’s books for years without ever thinking that I might enjoy them, but this one sounded appealing to me so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did because I loved it – it just shows how wrong you can be about an author!

The Dutch House is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy, and their obsession with the house in Philadelphia in which they grew up. It’s no ordinary house; named for the nationality of the people who built it in the 1920s, the Van Hoebeeks, the Dutch House is an architectural wonder with ornate floors and ceilings and luxurious furnishings. When Cyril Conroy purchases it in the 1940s, he intends it to be a wonderful surprise for his family. However, his wife, Elna, comes to hate the house and everything it represents. For her, it is symbolic of all the inequality in the world – how can it be fair for some people to have so much and others so little? She begins to spend increasingly longer periods of time away from the house, until one day she leaves and doesn’t come back.

Maeve and Danny are devastated by their mother’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, but things quickly become worse when Cyril marries again and his new wife, Andrea, arrives at the Dutch House with her two young daughters. Andrea makes it clear that she has no time for her stepchildren and doesn’t want them in her life so, when Cyril dies a few years later, she throws them out of the Dutch House and leaves them to make their own way in the world.

For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve will struggle to move on and let go of the past. They will sit outside the Dutch House, looking through the gates and wondering who lives there now. They will let the events of their childhood influence the career paths they follow and put strain on their future relationships. And they will never forget that Andrea is to blame for all of this.

You could describe this as a book about a house, but I think of it more as a book about people and the connections between them…in particular, the relationship between a brother and a sister. When they find themselves cast out and alone in the world, Danny and Maeve have no one else they can rely on but each other; Maeve, who is seven years older, takes on the role of mother, overseeing Danny’s education and making sacrifices for him, despite struggling with her own health problems. The bond between them is deep and unbreakable and although there are times when it seems to restrict them from doing things they really want to do and times when it gets in the way of their other relationships, I still found it very moving.

The novel is narrated entirely by Danny and as he is only a small child when his mother leaves and still just a teenager when he is forced out of the Dutch House, there’s a sense that some of the information he is giving us may be slightly unreliable. It is only later in life, as he sits in the car outside the house reminiscing with Maeve, that certain things become clear to him and start to make more sense. As the story progresses towards its end the full picture emerges and we begin to wonder ‘what if’? What if, instead of always staying in the car, Danny and Maeve had gone and knocked on the door of the Dutch House one day? What if they had tried to contact Andrea and speak to her as adults – could they have cleared the air and moved on with their lives? What if they had made more effort to find their mother and had asked her why she walked out on them as children? They will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we all have similar thoughts about our own lives – things we could have done differently or not done at all.

I loved this book and will now have to read Ann Patchett’s earlier books, which I had dismissed as not for me. Any recommendations?

30 thoughts on “The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I certainly understand how you feel in these times. I have a relative who has gotten the virus and when she did I felt it even more strongly. My husband and I are well and staying home. I hope you are too.
    I have loved every novel I have read by Ann Patchett. I think I have read all but one. So it is hard to name a particular one, though I did love Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars especially. You can find reviews of some of her books on my blog.

    • Helen says:

      I hope your relative has recovered now. Staying home is a good idea. I’m still having to go to work at the moment, but not going anywhere else. I’m glad you’ve loved so many of Ann Patchett’s books – I think Bel Canto sounds the most appealing to me.

  2. setinthepast says:

    I’m finding writing helpful – I haven’t been given the option to work from home and am stuck in the office with nothing to do, because no-one’s coming in! I haven’t read this, but it sounds quite interesting.

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure my enthusiasm for writing will return eventually! I’m still going into the office at the moment as well – there are plans for most of us to start working from home, but it’s happening very slowly.

  3. Liz says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this – it is gradually making its way slowly to the top of my TBR pile, although as you say it is hard to stay focused. Burying ourselves in books seems like a good strategy to me.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it seems like a great strategy, although I’m even struggling to concentrate on reading now. I hope you enjoy this book when it reaches the top of the TBR!

  4. whatmeread says:

    I loved this book. I hope you will feel more collected as time passes. We are in Washington state, which is one of the hotbeds of the virus in the U.S., but our county so far has only four cases. I am keeping my fingers crossed, but as of this weekend, we are pretty much staying home. Everything is closed anyway except some stores, and take-out only is allowed from restaurants.

    • Jo Shafer says:

      I live in Washington state, too — Yakima. Safeway stores remain open with plenty of fresh vegetables, but we decided to stick with frozen. However, those were all but cleaned out today! It’s a strange new world out there and I don’t quite know what to make of it. We just stay home. at least I have my personal library, NPR radio, the garden waking up.

      • whatmeread says:

        Our stores are open, although I’ve only shopped recently in a small produce and meat store. The week before last, shopping was normal on Thursday, then on Friday everyone went nuts.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved this book too. I am still having to go to work, but hoping I can work from home from next week. Other than that, I’m trying to avoid going anywhere apart from for essential shopping.

  5. Margaret says:

    At least we have lots of books to read – but like you I am finding it worrying. It’s the uncertainty of it and it looks as though it’s not going to end soon. I can see that I’ll have to buy this book – not sure about using the library right now.

    • Helen says:

      I do think this book is worth buying – I really enjoyed it. All of my local libraries have started either closing or reducing their services now.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I’m with you in the struggle to write blog posts at the moment – it seems to require far more concentration that I currently possess! However, oddly, maybe now that things seem to be hitting peak chaos it might be less stressful – sometimes dealing with what IS happening is less stressful than worrying about what WILL happen. I’ve only read one Patchett – State of Wonder – and I loved her writing, although I had a couple of niggles with the story. I’ve already got The Dutch House on the wishlist, so I’m glad to hear it worked so well for you. Meantime, though, I need murder mysteries – better than meditation! 😉

    • Helen says:

      I would like to try State of Wonder, so I’m glad you loved the writing even if you had some niggles with the story. I’m feeling slightly less stressed than I did earlier in the week, but still struggling to focus on blogging at the moment. I’m sure normality will return eventually! Take care.

  7. Karen K. says:

    I love Ann Patchett, she’s probably my favorite contemporary writer. I’ve read all but two of her books so far and enjoyed all of them. My favorites include Bel Canto and Commonwealth, but I also really enjoyed Truth and Beauty and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, her two nonfiction works.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’ve enjoyed so many of her books. I like the sound of both Bel Canto and Commonwealth, but her nonfiction sounds interesting too.

  8. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I’ve never read anything by this author, but I’ve read several positive reviews of it recently, so I think it would be a good introduction for me to her work. Yes, I reckon we’re all in the same boat here with anxiety and uncertainty, but I agree with FF’s comment above about the anticipation been potentially more frightening than the actuality. Keep safe.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think this book would be a good introduction for you – it certainly was for me. As for the anxiety, it’s been a few days since I posted this and I do feel slightly calmer than I did earlier in the week, so we’ll see.

  9. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    Exactly the same thing happened to me with Ann Patchett’s last book before this one – Commonwealth – and I thing you would like that too. We are living through strange and worrying times, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on reading let alone writing.

    • Helen says:

      I’m trying to read a little bit every day, but it’s hard to focus and I’m certainly not reading as much as I normally would. When I do find my enthusiasm for reading and writing again, I will look out for Commonwealth.

  10. heavenali says:

    Glad you loved this, I bought it for my sister and I’m planning on borrowing it sometime. Totally understand how you feel, I think many of us feel similarly. I have now been told to stay home from work, as I am at higher risk. Take care.

  11. Lark says:

    I know what you mean! I’ve been finding it hard to settle down with a book and read lately. And writing reviews? I’m glad I have a few already written and scheduled. Everything’s so crazy and stressful right now. Hope you’re staying well! 🙂 And The Dutch House does sound very good. If only my library wasn’t “closed until further notice.” Sigh.

    • Helen says:

      I hope things start to improve soon. I keep reminding myself that this won’t last forever and we’ll return to normal eventually, but in the meantime it’s just so stressful. I hope you can find a copy of The Dutch House when your library reopens. 🙂

  12. Café Society says:

    I’m trying to see my enforced hibernation as one long reading retreat, but so far it isn’t working. I agree that the book is as much if not more about relationships as about the house and it’s interesting that when I was putting together three books about houses for this year’s Summer School it didn’t even cross my mind. I think relationships are Patchett’s strong point. I would suggest Bel Canto as the place to go next.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s difficult, even for those of us who are usually quite happy with our own company and a good book. I’m slightly less stressed than I was earlier in the week, but still finding it hard to concentrate. Bel Canto does sound appealing to me, so I think that will probably be the Ann Patchett book I try next.

  13. Jo Shafer says:

    Ann Patchett has been a favorite author of mine for some time, so when DUTCH HOUSE came out, I put it on my Christmas list. Since then, I’ve read it twice! It’s been on the best seller lists for months, now. Patchett, like Kristen Hannah, examines the dynamics of family relationships. BEL CANTO is a case in point, too, but its setting in South America lends it a aura of mystique in time of political crisis. All Patchett’s books are “must reads,” as far as I’m concerned.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you like Ann Patchett’s books so much, Jo! I do want to read more of them and I think Bel Canto will probably be the one I try next.

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