Ann Patchett’s remarkable new novel “The Dutch House” dives deep into family dynamics, the amorphous nature of memory and the power of the past to shape the present. Similarly to Patchett’s superb “Commonwealth,” this book explores how adult children sort through the detritus of their parents’ troubled lives. Patchett’s graceful prose is rich with references to fairy tales and parables and the book is dense with human drama and layers of meaning.
After World War II, Cyril Conroy is a poor man. Due to one successful investment, he becomes wealthy and purchases an iconic house in a suburb of Philadelphia.
“Be careful what you wish for” could be the novel’s subtitle:
This acquisition is the beginning of the end of Cyril’s happy family and sizable fortune.
The mansion, once owned by a Dutch family, is ornate, opulent and architecturally significant. Cyril is confident his new bride Elna will fall in love with it. He couldn’t have been more mistaken. Elna, who had considered becoming a nun, hates the ostentation. One day, she permanently leaves the Dutch House and her family, choosing instead to help the poor.
Her 3-year-old son Danny and and 10-year-old daughter Maeve are traumatized. Eventually, their father remarries. His new wife Andrea and her two daughters move into the house, dislodging Danny from his childhood and displacing Maeve from her bedroom. When Cyril dies unexpectedly four years later, stepmother Andrea cruelly throws Maeve and Danny out of the house she now owns. Maeve becomes Danny’s guardian and protector.
Narrated from Danny’s point of view, the novel follows Maeve and Danny as they attempt to make sense of the events that led to their eviction. Though they obtain college degrees, secure jobs, and in Danny’s case, marry and have kids, they’re bonded to one another and trapped in the past.
For decades they keep returning to the Dutch House as if a magnetic force is pulling them toward it. Parked across the street, they sit in Maeve’s car and gaze at their old home. With anger, sadness and humor, they examine their past. Maeve shares memories of their mother with Danny. Together, they analyze their enigmatic father and resent their mean stepmother.
Danny’s wife says, “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel. You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get. Do you ever get tired of reminiscing?”
Their mother’s painful abandonment, their father’s careless choices and their stepmother’s petty vindictiveness alter the trajectories of their lives. As the single remnant of their childhoods, the Dutch House becomes a kind of museum of their memories.
One morning, when Maeve is 49 and Danny 42, an unexpected event occurs and they decide to stop parking across the street. Twenty-seven years have passed since their expulsion.
They realize, “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.”
Yet the story is far from over. The house’s grip on their lives lessens but does not vanish. Again, they must broaden their perspective of their past and open themselves to an unforeseen present.
Patchett is like an archeologist excavating an emotional ruin. Her main characters ask questions, analyze facts and arrive at hypotheses that morph with time and greater understanding. Danny and Maeve acknowledge their memories might be unreliable and shaped to align with the narrative they created. But isn’t that the nature of recollection?
The surprise ending is moving without being maudlin. Acceptance, forgiveness and healing occur in unexpected ways.
Patchett’s talent is evident on every page. As one character says, “Sometimes you’ve got to put the past in the past.” With empathy, she shows why that is easier said than done.
Katherine Read blogs at readsreading.blogspot.com
The Dutch House
Written by: Ann Patchett
Published by: HarperCollins
Price: $27.99 (hard cover)
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