Victoria’s Book Reviews: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

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I feel I must be one of the last reviewers to read this bestseller so I can only apologise for my tardiness! After all, The Dutch House was one of the biggest hits of 2019 and it isn’t even due out in paperback until May this year. So, this intrigued me as 2019 was packed with big name authors and return of familiar worlds and names – what was it about The Dutch House that was turning readers into evangelists?

First up, I must disclose that I read this in a day. All the way through. Yet this isn’t a thriller with a powerful narrative drive; rather, The Dutch House is a delicate family drama that reveals itself in both familiar and unsuspecting ways. And since I put the book down, I often find myself thinking about its themes of family, the power of a calling, regret, revenge and reckonings. And how big family dramas are often, more truthfully, to be found in the private turmoil of emotions rather than explosive confrontations.

Ann invites us into the world of Danny and Maeve, a brother and sister who live with their father in the titular mansion in Pennsylvania. Their mother has long since fled for reasons that remain unclear and, their father being emotionally unavailable, the two have formed an unshakeable bond between themselves and their household staff.

But the familiar is suddenly thrown into turmoil when their father brings home a new woman who, obsessed with the mansion, its paintings and its history, quickly ensures she becomes their stepmother. But this is a very contemporary evil stepmother and no sooner are her feet under the table then Maeve and Danny are pushed out. And this becomes emphatic and permanent when their father dies soon after and the pair are removed from the house and access to its fortune.

“…traditionally the first generation makes the money, the second generation spends the money, and the third generation has to go to work again. But in our case, out father made a fortune and then he blew it. He completed the entire cycle in his own lifetime. He was poor, then rich, and now we’re poor.”

What’s interesting in this is that the conclusion obviously has to be a reckoning; Maeve and Danny must at some point come full circle and confront this injustice. But this is a story that spans five decades. The passing of time affects this story profoundly – as it does in reality. Grievances come and go, people change. Their lives take them in new directions, new pressures and demands take our focus. And that is what Ann captures here. Her writing dances over the decades with ease – there is no drag or slog; instead we witness Maeve and Danny struggle to shrug off the shadows of childhood but also realise they cannot move forward until they find peace.

And that peace does finally come – but not in the way you expect. Because at the heart of this is the message that even when you think you get what you want, it may not be what you need. You’ve to look to yourself to find peace.

This is a beautiful book. Ann has drawn such interesting characters and the way she brings these characters together is so fascinating – how sometimes they seem to fit as a natural family, how it is clear at other times that they should never have been a family. (“God’s truth,” Maeve said. “Our father was a man who had never met his own wife.”) But it is her deft touch that marvels me most. By all account, this is an epic but it doesn’t feel like it; it is intimate rather than sweeping, and bittersweet rather than melodramatic.

 

The Dutch House is published by Bloomsbury; hardback RRP £18.99.

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