Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, The Dutch House, is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy who are disinherited after their father’s untimely death. Like many of Patchett’s novels, The Dutch House explores family – not of the nuclear sort, but the family we create when things go awry.
The story is told from the point of view of Danny, eight years younger than his sister Maeve and traverses their early childhood up through middle age. Their father, Cyril, a real estate investor, purchases The Dutch House completely furnished by the previous owners as a gift for their mother. Overwhelmed by the mansion, which was owned by a Dutch couple who made their fortune in cigarettes, their mother abandons the family to serve the poor in India. The house is as much a character in the novel as Danny and Maeve. There is a ballroom on the top floor, entire walls of glass, ornate ceilings, six bedrooms, a swimming pool, and portraits of the original owners in gilded frames. Cyril hires two sisters, Sandy and Jocelyn, to cook and clean and assist with childcare. A few years after their mother’s abandonment, Cyril remarries Andrea, a much younger woman who moves in with her two young daughters, Norma and Bright. Andrea adores the house; she cares much less for Danny and Maeve whom she kicks out as soon as Cyril’s body is laid in his grave.
The siblings form a unique bond; Maeve filling the role of mother to her younger brother Danny. When they are evicted, Maeve is in college and working as a bookkeeper for a frozen vegetable company. Cyril assumed that his new wife would treat his children fairly, and has no will, but before his death he established a trust for the future education of Danny and Andrea’s two girls. Maeve is determined to oversee Danny’s education and encourages him to completely drain the trust so that there will be nothing left for Norma and Bright. Danny goes to boarding school at Choate and eventually on to medical school – though he has no intention of practicing medicine; his hearts desire is to become a real estate mogul like his father.
When Danny comes home on school breaks, the siblings establish a ritual of sitting in front of The Dutch House in Maeve’s car. Danny doesn’t understand why Maeve is so bound to the house, but he indulges her. “The house was the hero of every story,” Danny writes. For Maeve, The Dutch House is the embodiment of all her memories of her mother. Danny will do anything for Maeve; their relationship to each other is primary – no friends or lovers can supersede it. Patchett tends these relationships with a deft hand, never falling into treacle, but endearing the siblings to each other and to her readers.
The Dutch House is a glorious read, as grand as its namesake and as luminous as the rest of Patchett’s oeuvre. I recommend The Dutch House for fans of The Big House by George Howe Colt, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Patchett’s own Commonwealth.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my reviews and author interviews on https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0