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The Dutch House

September 2, 2019

I received an advance copy of The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, from HarperCollins, and found that it fits into my pattern of always liking Patchett’s writing while feeling attracted only occasionally to her subject matter (my favorite of her novels continues to be State of Wonder). This novel will be published on September 24.

The subject of The Dutch House is a sibling relationship, as defined by their relationship to a splendid old house they lived in for a few years, early in their lives. Taking the house as a metaphor for the lives of many people Patchett’s age (and mine) on this splendid planet could be interesting, but the story line is very literal.

The story is narrated by the brother, Danny. He explains that “The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived.” Danny and his sister Maeve lived in the house after their father bought it from the VanHoebeeks, who’d had it built after the first world war.

Raised by his sister, their father and the hired help, Danny is sheltered from the world as a child. He remembers feeling embarrassed when he finds out that the two women who are taking care of him once Maeve has left for college are sisters: “both of them had children, I knew that because Maeve gave them whatever clothes we’d outgrown. I knew because when one of their children was really sick they didn’t come to work. Did I ask them when they came back, who was sick? Is she better now? I did not. I liked them both so much….I felt terrible for failing them.” The sisters are named Sandy and Jocelyn, and there is another servant they call “Fluffy” who was dismissed after she hit 4-year-old Danny in the face with a wooden spoon.

It sounds like an idyllic life: “we never ran out of apples or crackers, there were always stamps in the left-hand drawer of the library desk, clean towels in the bathroom….We would never tell them the laundry needed doing or a floor needed cleaning because everything was done before we’d had the chance to notice.” But everything changed when their father married Andrea, an unpleasant woman with two daughters who
“made weekly menus for Jocelyn to follow and gave her opinion on every course….Why was Jocelyn serving cod when Andrea had specifically told her sole? Could she not have troubled herself to check another market? Did Andrea have to do everything? Every day she worked to find something extra for Sandy to do, dusting the shelves in the pantry or washing the curtain sheers.”

Their father doesn’t appreciate his daughter’s intelligence and generosity. He teaches his son the real estate business, but then dies suddenly and leaves his children with nothing, as the stepmother, Andrea, inherits it all and kicks them out of the house. Their lawyer tells Danny and Maeve that there is one provision he was able to convince their father to make for them, and that’s a trust for Danny’s education. Although Danny becomes a medical doctor, he never practices and gets into real estate as soon as he can manage to do it. He hires the former servant they still call “Fluffy” to take care of his own children.

Maeve and Danny often moon over the past when they’re together, sitting in a car near the Dutch House and watching what goes on there while they talk. Danny marries a woman who doesn’t get along with Maeve and they have three children, one of whom becomes rich enough to buy the Dutch House, after a childhood spent parked in front of it with her aunt: “May insisted that she, too, had lived there when she was very young….she layered Fluffy’s stories about parties and dancing onto her own memories of childhood. Sometimes she said she had lived above the garage with Fluffy and together they drank the flat champagne, and other times she was a distant VanHoebeek relative, asleep in a glorious bedroom with the window seat she’d heard so much about. She swore she remembered.”

When Danny is forty-five years old, he and Maeve meet their mother again, and they come as close as they ever have to fighting, over whether she has any right to be in their lives now after leaving them as children. Danny says to Maeve:
“Okay, if you know so much about her, tell me why she left. And don’t say she didn’t like the wallpaper.”
“She wanted—” Maeve stopped, exhaled, her frozen breath making me think of smoke. “She wanted to help people.”
“People other than her family.”
“She made a mistake. Can’t you understand that? She’s covered up in shame. That’s why she never got in touch with us, you know, when she came back from India. She was afraid we’d treat her pretty much the way you’ve treated her. It’s her belief that your cruelty is what she deserves.”
“I haven’t been cruel, believe me, but it is what she deserves. Making a mistake is not giving the floorboards enough time to settle before you seal them. Abandoning your children to go help the poor of India means you’re a narcissist who wants the adoration of strangers….What kind of person leaves their kids?”
“….Men!” Maeve said, nearly shouting. “Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.”

The Dutch House of his childhood gives Danny’s narrative a bit of shape. His story shows the narrow confines of gender roles in the twentieth century and has the feel of a family saga. It doesn’t add up to much, kind of like his sister’s life. We experience a little bit of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2019 3:32 am

    Like you, I was bowled over by State of Wonder and, possibly as a result, less than enamoured of Commonwealth. I have this on my radar for the end of the month and I’m hoping that I will see it as back to form but……

    • September 4, 2019 8:34 pm

      I was not a big fan of Commonwealth. Like this one, it was a bit of a family saga.

  2. September 2, 2019 5:52 am

    It does sound a bit prosaic. I haven’t found her books very even, and like you, prefer State of Wonder to the others.

    • September 4, 2019 8:36 pm

      I also kind of liked her memoir, Truth and Beauty. But this novel…there’s nothing very special about it.

  3. September 2, 2019 8:19 am

    I read State of Wonder after reading a lot of great reviews and was disappointed in it – the character’s actions at the end of the book didn’t make sense to me. I haven’t been compelled to pick up Patchett’s work since then and think I’ll skip this one.

    • September 4, 2019 8:39 pm

      I liked the ending of State of Wonder, but it is a bit of a difficult ending. As a fan of satire, I often like difficult endings, ones that inspire the reader to have an effect on the world, rather than just stew in the affect of the fictional world.

  4. September 2, 2019 11:19 am

    Men are often portrayed as being incapable of seeing what a second wife might be like to their children with the first wife. They want a woman in charge of their household, and naively think the kids will get along. And that the second wife will love their first wife’s children as if they were her own if he dies.

    Two minutes thought would indicate that is unlikely unless he is there to make it happen. The story of Cinderella is a classic.

    The second wives (there’s a title – the second wives’ club) who bring children into the union have an incentive to make sure their children are taken care of – and resent that they will have to share.

    It’s not all about money, but money is definitely a big part of it. The situation is rife with drama. But it’s petty drama, and doesn’t seem something you can learn much from except about unhappiness – and maybe that’s why it isn’t very appealing, even if well written. I have the same feeling about other authors who always seem to pick something unpleasant to write about.

    Maybe also it’s my thinking as a writer, “Why pick those characters to spend your writing time on?” A murder mystery has the satisfaction of punishing the guilty and proving innocence. A sibling drama needs to find something uplifting for me to read it. I don’t get that flavor. Thanks for the review.

    • September 4, 2019 8:41 pm

      To be fair, it’s not all “petty” drama, but you’re right, much of the flavor is unhappiness.

  5. September 5, 2019 8:29 pm

    All right, this book’s probably not for me. I think I have a similar experience to yours, that I like Ann Patchett’s writing more than I like her books — apart from State of Wonder, which I did enjoy, although I then read The People in the Trees, which felt like it was Better State of Wonder. :p

    • September 6, 2019 9:51 am

      Ugh…The People in the Trees shows all the ugliness, whereas State of Wonder shows more of what can happen when a person is open to wonder, rather than just, you know, looking for profit.

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