I confess, I picked this book because of an interview I watched by accident. In this interview Ann Patchett talks about the painting that adorns the book jacket. A black-haired girl in a red coat looking with steady eyes at the painter. And I was curious to read her story. Check out the interview here.
The Dutch House in this book is a stunning work of architecture, up a gravel driveway and seems to float in an expanse of glass. In my mind it’s like an exquisite doll’s house everything inside exposed, aquarium-like. The house was built by the VanHoeBeeks, a dutch family who made their fortune in cigarettes and then lost it during the depression. The ominous portraits of husband and wife hangs in the drawing-room (in my head Vermeer-like) and across from them, the girl in the red coat.
The novel opens with Maeve and Danny Conroy, the children of the house coming down the many stairs, past European-style furniture to meet Andrea, a neat and beautiful woman who covets the house. Their father is there but he is distant, distracted, a man of few words. Of course she becomes their step-mother, moving in with her two daughters and efficiently dominating their domestic life.
Where is Maeve and Danny’s mother? She left them with their taciturn father a few years before. Disappearing at first for days and then left, sailing off to India. They are firstly raised by Fluffy, the only servant left from the VanHoeBeek’s time and then, sisters Jocelyn and Sandra. Danny is doted upon while Maeve swiftly steps into the void their mother left, older beyond her years and intensely intelligent. She, you later learn is the record keeper of their family’s history, leaving Danny to live mostly in the present. He manages snatches of contentment, driving out with his father to collect rent from tenants, revelling in basketball and even enjoys his step-sisters’ company.
It’s interesting to note for a book that has so many women characters populating the pages, Patchett chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view. His first person narration is flawed, firstly with the careless observation of a growing boy who takes most things for granted, then later as a man who seems unfazed by the ebb and flow of his life. At least on the surface of things, for still waters run deep.
Their father dies of a heart attack when Danny is just fifteen. Andrea swoops down taking everything, kicking him out of the house. He goes to live with Maeve and later, enters medical school in Columbia. This was decided by his sister to drain the trust fund, the one thing they had access to. And here Danny follows the currents of his sisters machinations. Going through the motions of being a doctor even though all he wanted to do was real estate like his father; asking a girl he met on a train if she wanted a lift home who he later married. The push and pull of his life at times are to please other people and yet, he is not one thing. Patchett’s rendition of her characters are nuanced. Danny figures out a way to buy a building and then another. He pursues what he wants even as he tries to be good to those in his life. He, like most of us gets on with the business of living.
The Conroy siblings are the heart of this novel. Danny and Maeve often drive and sit outside The Dutch House together, smoking and wondering about the life they have lost. The house and heartless stepmother a symbol for what was stolen from them instead of a mother who left and a father who did not know what to do with two children who needed her.
“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father.”
Patchett’s prose is near invisible, drawing out the story without needing much embellishment. And I fell into the story, at first daring her to lure me in and then, willingly as questions both Maeve and Danny wanted answers for also swirled in my head. Like how do you survive an emotional devastation from parental abandonment? Or what would you ask your mother if she came back into your life? Or how do you empathise with those who wronged you? There is perverse satisfaction in wallowing as Danny observes, “we had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.”
I was compelled, invested and at times moved by this book. Even when I reckon I know where it is leading, there are surprises lying in wait- not the whambam kind, but those that churn emotional depths.
There are many things I can write about. Like how there is a whiff of fairytale (evil stepmom! Siblings cast out into the world). Even the house smacks of something unreal, fable-like, a desirable enchanted mansion that can also imprison. Lately I’ve been reading many books about depressive mothers leaving their children to fend for themselves. What kind of damage do we bring with us into the future and to people who love us? But I will end this here. The Dutch House is book I didn’t realise I wanted to read. Pick it up because Patchett explores things that are close to our hearts- family, love, the redemptive power of forgiveness and, never quite getting what you want but finding a way to be okay with it. She writes with compassion for her characters, and to my delight it’s also one of the best stories about a brother and sister I’ve read in a long time.
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