Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
In her eighth novel, Ann Patchett shows that what makes a family cannot be measured by the grandness of a house
Reviewed by Yvette Benavides, Fri., Oct. 4, 2019
The eponymous house of Ann Patchett's eighth novel is the behemoth that holds the Conroy family secrets – mysteries so impenetrable that even those who live there don't understand them.
Why did Elna Conroy leave her husband Cyril to manage without her? How could she abandon Danny and Maeve, her two children?
Cyril Conroy, a man who grew up in poverty in Brooklyn during the Depression, eventually makes a living buying and selling New York City real estate. One day, he extends his business to Pennsylvania and, to the dismay of his wife, decides to buy the Dutch House.
The place is named for the VanHoebeeks, the Netherlands-born family who once occupied it. Their ghosts linger in its opulent rooms, in the portraits of the VanHoebeeks hanging there and their vases and tchotchkes still present, too – the place like an Airbnb inhabited by the new family and their maids. Elna didn't want maids, but Cyril felt such a grand house required it and hired them, an act that pushes Elna further toward her enigmatic decision to leave.
When Elna leaves, Danny and Maeve are not the center of concern for their father, an aloof man – perhaps a product of that era when fathers were not necessarily "friends" to their children. But if Cyril is distant, then Andrea, the second woman he brings to the Dutch House, is on another planet – as removed from the children as she can be, except to criticize Maeve's posture and long hair or dote on her own daughters, Norma and Bright, as much as the cocktail in her hand will allow those superficial attentions.
Andrea loves the house. Built in Philadelphia in the 1920s, it boasts architectural details "more in keeping with Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania": marble floors, tapestry ottomans, oil paintings, and a ballroom. Their luxury lures her back to the place, even when it seems Cyril has grown disillusioned with her. But the lonely Cyril eventually does marry the widow 18 years his junior.
Patchett tells the story through Danny, an unreliable narrator who wants to please his father and connect with him, who wants to understand his mother (who left when he was only 3), and who wants Andrea to be the mother who goes away.
Danny is clear in his loyalty to his sister, who is the only mother Danny really has. She is seven years older than he, and while the trifecta of good-natured maids help comprise a maternal surrogacy for him, it is Maeve who is the constant in his life. They cling to each other when they are motherless and even more so after Cyril's death, when Andrea turns them both out of the Dutch House.
We see Danny grow from a callow boy to a teen dodging the worst losses that life can bring to a husband and father himself. Through his eyes, we learn that Maeve's true obsession was her mother, the chasm of loss she could never fill. He does not have that same devotion and struggles to feel that strongly for anyone, except Maeve.
In one dramatic moment, Elna returns, "an assemblage of bones and tennis shoes" who has spent decades steeped in poverty to help the poor, figuring her children would remain happy because they had everything money could buy. She'd been oblivious to the fact that after Cyril's death they had nothing and had spent those same decades building their lives – alone. So what role can Elna play in their lives all these years later? Can she be a mother? Grandmother?
This book delights with charismatic and intriguing characters and satisfyingly emotional highs and lows. It is the stuff of true family drama. As with most of Patchett's fiction, what we learn about is that what makes a family – the blending and the bonds – cannot be measured by the grandness of a house. What makes a family is more profound than forgiveness, something we can comprehend and appreciate only when we have stepped in the shoes of the other person.
Those empathic turns don't come easily for Danny, who doesn't always understand the roles he fills, even while he judges his parents (and Andrea) for their own lacks and sins. It is the Dutch House itself that makes him confront the past he begrudged, knowing that his parents' playbook need not be his own.
The Dutch Houseby Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 352 pp., $27.99
Ann Patchett will speak about The Dutch House Mon., Oct. 7, 7pm, at Central Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Eighth. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.