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?