At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves. The story is told by Cyril's son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
When Danny is in his teens and Maeve in her twenties, their father dies suddenly and Andrea makes it clear they are no longer welcome in the Dutch House. The loss of both parents and their childhood home sends the pair into a long-term tailspin. On the surface, they grow into educated and responsible adults. But whenever they are together, Danny and Maeve visit the Dutch House, watching from a discreet location and ruminating over what they’ve lost and what might have been. In the years to follow their inability to let go has a profound impact on their lives and relationships.
Ann Patchett’s novels always have strong, well-developed characters, and she does dysfunctional families very well. The Dutch House provides plenty of fodder for discussion of parent/child and sibling relationships, and would make a great book club book.
It's no surprise, then, as many readers have noted, that the house itself actually becomes a character in its own right. There are good memories for Danny and his sister Maeve, although most of them occur before his father's remarriage to Andrea, a domineering, money hungry, status conscious younger woman with two daughters of her own. One of her first demands is that Maeve give her bedroom to one of her daughters and be sent to live on the distant third floor; instead, she leaves home. Maeve becomes Danny's protector and almost a second mother, making sacrifices to ensure that he gets a good education. Within days of Cyril's sudden death, Andrea kicks Danny out, although he is only 14. They learn that their father has left them absolutely nothing but an educational trust for Danny that reverts to Andrea if at any time he leaves school. Maeve's plan is to keep her brother in school as long as possible, if for no other reason than to spite Andrea.
That's the bare bones of the story, but there is much more to come as the plot weaves through more than 50 additional years. The Dutch House continues to haunt both the past and the present, and every so often, Maeve and Danny drive to the familiar street, park across from the house, and share memories and curses. Danny can't help but wonder how different their lives would have been had they never moved there. He blames the house for Elna's abandonment, the beginning of a negative influence on their personal lives that he just can't seem to shake.
I enjoyed the book, which is saved from being simply an evil stepmom story by the loving sibling relationship between Danny and Maeve that spans decades. The resolution is a bit contrived, yet still satisfying as not everything falls happily into place.
Head-up-shoulders-back might as well have been her name. For years he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself. Even I could see how she might have been intimidating: her height, the shining black wall of hair, the way she would lower her eyes to look at a person rather than bend her neck. But at eight I was still comfortably smaller than the woman our father would later marry.
For the first time I was able to see how pretty she was, how happy and young. My father was forty-nine on the day of his second wedding, and his new wife in her champagne satin was thirty-one. Still, Maeve and I had no idea why he married her. Looking back, I have to say we lacked imagination.
It’s really more of a story of a house, the eponymous Dutch House, located in the Pennsylvania countryside. Danny’s father, who was a real estate developer and builder, fell in love with the ornate house and bought it and presented it as a gift to his wife who, predictably, wanted no part of it. Now I don’t know about you but I don’t know too many wives who would be pleased to be presented with an expensive house for which they’ve had no input, a house that they were expected to hire servants for. I don’t want to get into too much detail but I will leave it at that because I’m starting to sound like I didn’t like the book and that’s not true. But I did like it more a few days ago when I finished it than I do now in retrospect. I certainly didn’t like it as well as her previous book, Commonwealth. But she certainly weaved together a lot of layers in this story and that made it very worthwhile.
Dutch House, a house that their father bought to surprise their mother, is as much a character in this story, as are the actual characters. It is the cause of much of what happens here, a house with huge window that allows one to see all through the house. We follow not only the house itself, but the brother and sister as they grow, through their triumphs and losses. Sibling strength and family loyalty.
It is a novel of obsession but also of acceptance and forgiveness. The end, in a way comes full circle, but not without much heartache and loss. There were a few things that sparked the doubting Thomas in me, but all in all this is a wonderful read.
Another read with Angela and Esil, and though our ratings do differ a bit, we all enjoyed this novel.
ARC by Edelweiss.
Actually, my biggest criticism of this book is the cover. I hate the cover.
A budding real estate investor buys a house as a surprise for his wife. It’s an intricate architectural wonder with three stories, carved ceilings, observatory, gardens and a special window seat. All the elegant furniture and even the portraits on the walls are included.
But the developer had badly miscalculated his wife. She hated the house, ultimately leaving her son and daughter to follow her own dream of working with the poor in India.
So begin the twists and turns of the three generations that ultimately live in this house: miscalculations, outright cruelty, negligence, and even some love in unexpected places.
It is a story or relationships; often twisted, and sometimes met with grace – all through the lens of the see-through house.
People often say in reviews that they could not relate to the characters, or that they disliked them. I have always thought that was the point in reading fiction – to see into others’ worlds. However, in this book, I honestly can say I didn’t recognize fragments of myself in any of the characters, and it did make it hard to warm to the book. The ending was surprising – would I have that sort of forgiveness in me?
Over decades, with first-person narrator Danny and his beloved sister Maeve Conroy at the center, connections are broken, shuffled, and reforged. Old scores get settled or fade into irrelevance with the passage of time. Characters, even Danny, evolve in surprising ways. The house itself could be counted as a character in the novel, and the opulent mansion is both embraced and rejected, by turns holding characters in its thrall and forgotten—almost.
Quotes: "Both of the kids were sleeping, and even though a fire truck could come waiting down Broadway and not disturb their dreams, the sound of their parents arguing could pull them straight up from a coma."
"There is no story of the prodigal mother."
"A high-pitched whine seemed to emanate from her misery, like fluorescent tubing just before it burns out, like tinnitus, something nearly imperceptible that almost drove me to insanity."
"The kids were stashed in the den to eat off card tables like a collection of understudies who dreamed of one day breaking into the dining room."
The ominous tone of The Dutch House is set in the book’s first chapter when Danny, the narrator, explains how he and his sister Maeve ended up living in such a large Philadelphia home with their father and the two women (themselves sisters) who did all the cooking and cleaning. Cyril had purchased the old mansion, complete with every physical possession owned by the Dutch family that owned it before him, without telling his wife that he was doing so. Mistake number one. Mistake number two came a few years later when Cyril let Andrea, a woman eighteen years his junior, wheedle her way into the Dutch House for good. Andrea was not so much the stereotypical evil stepmother, she was more the indifferent stepmother. Indifferent, that is, until the day she was able finally to banish the newly penniless siblings from her life forever.
Now Danny and Maeve have only each other to depend on, and Maeve literally takes to sleeping on the couch of her tiny apartment so that the taller Danny will have a place to sleep at night. Maeve, who has always been more mother to Danny than sister, is suddenly thrust into the role of being her brother’s only protector, a role she claims as hers for the rest of her life. Danny, on his part, deeply feels their special bond and is always there when his sister needs him.
Danny and Maeve eventually get on with their lives but, no matter how hard they may try, neither can ever forget all they lost to Andrea and how the indifference of their mother and father allowed it all to happen. Now, the two of them feel most comfortable when sitting together in a parked car across the street from the Dutch House talking about the past and what was stolen from them. And for years and years, every time Danny visits Philadelphia that’s exactly what they do. But can they ever really be happy as long as they allow the past to eat at them this way? And what will happen to Danny and Maeve when they are finally forced to confront the people who treated them so shabbily all those years ago? Will they ever be ready for that moment?
Bottom Line: The Dutch House is the kind of beautifully written novel that readers have come to expect from Ann Patchett, one filled with nuanced characters and (at times melodramatic) situations that will leave those readers thinking about them long after they have turned the book’s final page. Patchett uses multiple flashforwards and flashbacks to build tension all throughout the novel, sprinkling hints along the way as to what Danny and Maeve still have to endure before their story is finally told. And what a story, it is.
(Perhaps it’s just me, but The Dutch House reminds me very much of the kind of novel I’ve come to expect from Anne Tyler, another of my favorite writers.)
She’s even manage to make the house itself a character. The book me and do some long jumping back-and-forth in Maeve and Danny’s timelines, but always with their connection as the tie that binds. Seeing the world through Danny’s eyes allows us to understand the siblings close ties. When their mother returns, their roles reverse. Now after decades of being a caregiver, Maeve is finally being cared for. It’s something that shakes Danny’s world in an understandable way. Another thing I love about this book is Patchett’s ability to craft deeply flawed characters. No one is perfect, they have a variety of motivations and the reader doesn’t always know every inch of that. They make selfish decisions or petty ones, and they feel so real because he is the storyteller, my loyalty is obviously lies with him in Maeve. But even Andrea, relegated to the role will be able stepmother, and Celeste, the harpy wife, are both described at times with fondness. And I think we understand that we aren’t seeing them as fully developed people, because Danny refused to.
BOTTOM LINE: I loved it. My favorite Patchett since Bel Canto.