Review: The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny, seek to come to terms with past losses of parents, and their childhood home, a striking three-story home built by a Dutch couple.

This story, it seems to me is about the longings of people who care for each other, often at variance with each other, resulting in wounds of estrangement, with which we may spend a lifetime trying to come to terms. So it is with siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, born seven years apart. Their father, an aspiring real-estate tycoon has bought an extravagant house in an old Dutch neighborhood of Philadelphia, once owned by the Van Hoebeek’s, whose forbidding portraits and presence fill the house. Danny, who has never known anything else is the narrator of this account. Conroy’s wife Elna, who nearly became a nun, cannot come to terms with a place so extravagant. Her absences become longer until she leaves permanently, devoting herself to a life helping the poor, first in India and later, at various places in the United States, including New York’s Bowery.

Cyril’s ambitions, represented in his growing portfolio of properties leaves him vulnerable to the longings of Andrea, who becomes his second wife, bringing her two daughters. She has no problem seeing the house as hers. She relegates Maeve to a third floor bedroom so her daughter Norma can have her room. When Cyril, making repairs on one of his buildings, drops dead of a heart attack, Andrea expels Danny from the house, forcing him to live with Maeve. Soon they learn they have been cut out of their father’s company and assets apart from an educational trust for Danny and Andrea’s two girls.

Maeve already has a job as chief financial officer for a frozen vegetable concern and uses acumen to look after her brother, using the trust first to send him to Columbia, and then through medical school. She pours her life out for Danny, who strikes me as spoiled and self-absorbed, at times, to the detriment of her own health as a diabetic. It seems her longing is to be needed. Yet the question of what Danny wanted wasn’t asked. Finally after his medical training, he pursues what he wants–to be like the father he had followed around collecting rents and making repairs as a boy. That longing clashes with his wife, Celeste who thought she was marrying a doctor, anticipating the life of a doctor’s wife.

Meanwhile, Maeve and Danny continue to wrestle with the father and mother they lost, symbolized by the Dutch House. Repeatedly, they sit together, parked across the street wondering why their mother had left, why their father had so compromised their interests, and what had become of their evil stepmother. They try to understand their past and its hold on their lives. It turns out that they end up being versions of the parents they had lost.

I’ve often wrestled with what I’ve felt to be the unsatisfying endings of many of Patchett’s books. For one, I felt that Patchett wrote an ending I found to be satisfying. Not everyone lives happily ever after but there are real resolutions, real reconciliations. Danny, as narrator, grows in a trajectory of maturity and character. I’ll leave you to discover how Patchett accomplishes this. Like her other novels, she explores the unique ways in which families can be unhappy. In the resolution of this one, I found it satisfying in the authentic growth of the characters. I leave to you to discover how she does this and what you think.

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