As with her 2016 hit Commonwealth, Ann Patchett’s latest mesmerizing and kaleidoscopic tale, The Dutch House (HarperCollins), deftly links various yarns spanning several generations, allowing the repercussions to cascade and branch off into new and unexpected directions and the past to assert itself anew.
We are introduced to Cyril Conroy, a World War II veteran who follows a lucky tip and makes a small fortune in real estate, setting up his career. He acquires a lavish estate outside Philadelphia, the Dutch House, replete with furnishings from the previous owners’ lives and multiple staff members who’ve attended to it devotedly. “The people in the paintings had come with the house… everything in the house had come with the house.”
Stocked with another family’s artifacts, the house itself is both grand and soulless, even as it will inspire decades of infighting. People will drift through its rooms, whether family members or hired help, but they never gain purchase therein.
In fact, Cyril’s modest wife, Elna, cannot reconcile herself with the grandeur of this “fantastical museum.” She leaves Cyril and their children, ten-year-old Maeve and our narrator, three-year-old Danny, escaping to India in service of the poor. This first, indelible loss shapes the children, setting into motion Maeve’s lifelong struggle with chronic illness and imparting in Danny an ironic aloofness. They are the ultimate poor rich kids.
Cyril finds a younger wife, Andrea, who, significantly, shares his love of the Dutch House. When Cyril dies suddenly, a teenage Danny and young adult Maeve madden Andrea through an innocent misstep and find themselves turned out on the street.
Like a wealthy dowager, the house permits suitors before repelling them, Patchett seems to suggest. Resourceful Maeve discovers a means of avenging Andrea’s betrayal: a scholarship trust set up for educating Danny and Andrea’s girls from a previous marriage, which she sets upon draining. Danny finds himself at Choate, Columbia and then medical school. He graduates as a doctor purely to please Maeve and yet never exhibits any bitterness towards her.
Throughout the book, the siblings’ bond is a touch point. Maeve is Danny’s home, as he observes. Still, they find themselves hovering outside of the actual house on many occasions, watching for signs of Andrea to see what has become of her.
As Danny says, “Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of… migratory patterns” and thus bound to the site of their unresolved trauma.
Years later, Danny’s wife, Celeste, who was intent upon marrying a doctor, suffers quietly from his detachment. “Celeste blamed Maeve for everything she was afraid to blame me for,” he says. Danny frequently shows himself as more devoted to his sister than to his wife; their psychological wounds thus taint their lives, making romantic attachments all but impossible.
Themes of obsession, possession and loss abound as these characters pine for the ideal world they once knew. Readers will find parallels to tales like Camelot and American classics such as The Great Gatsby and The Goldfinch.
Filled with unexpected twists, Patchett’s plot is lively and intricate. Believe it or not, this summary stops midway through book!
Patchett does well when examining the complexities of human bonds, as seen in works like Run and Commonwealth, and especially with the de facto family-like group that emerges under duress in Bel Canto.
As in those previous novels, her characters here are deeply flawed, maddening and lovable, often all at once. Even Andrea, the ostensible evil stepmother, appears marginally sympathetic in fleeting moments and experiences several lashes of comeuppance as the story concludes. Danny himself makes for an attentive brother and a distracted, self-centered husband. Who can blame him, given the tumult of his youth?
Characters linked to the siblings’ childhood return years later under dramatically changed circumstances, and the story ultimately leads the family back to the single object of conquest that started this tale. An inescapable constant and the locus of Danny and Maeves’ lives, the Dutch House inspires and inhibits them, wedding them to what once was and drawing them into their future.
About Ann Patchett:
ANN PATCHETT is the author of seven novels and three works of nonfiction. She is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, England’s Orange Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She is the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Karl, and their dog, Sparky. Find out more at annpatchett.com.