Review by Harriet, 8 October 2019
Ann Patchett believes in goodness, arguably a most unfashionable belief in today’s world. In the bookstore she runs, there’s a sign: ‘What good shall I do this day?’ In an Guardian interview [here] in 2016 she was quoted as saying ‘I have been shown so much kindness in my life, so for me to write books about good, kind people seems completely natural’. There are several good kind people in The Dutch House, but naturally enough not everybody is that way.
In this wonderfully immersive novel, which glides seamlessly between time-frames spanning around fifty years, the narrator and central character is Danny Conroy. Danny has been raised in an astonishingly impressive Philadelphia house, built in the 1920s for a wealthy Netherlands couple whose portraits still hang each side of the grand fireplace. Following their bankruptcy, the house had come on the market and Danny’s father Cyril, a relatively impoverished property developer, had mysteriously found enough money to buy it, together with all its desirable fixtures and fittings. Where this finance came from is not revealed until late on in the novel. What we do learn early on is that Danny’s mother Elna found the house overwhelming and oppressive, and shortly after the move she packed up and left permanently, abandoning the baby Danny and his seven years’ older sister Maeve. The Conroys had inherited servants along with the bricks and mortar, and for the first few years Danny has been cared for by the young nanny, known as Fluffy, who also, as we discover, shares his father’s bed. But when Danny is four, Fluffy is forced to leave following a domestic incident and, though his care is handed to two sisters, Sandy and Jocelyn, who preside over the kitchen, it is Maeve who steps into the role of mother to her small brother.
If Danny is the narrator, Maeve is definitely the heroine of this novel, and a supremely good kind person. Although she is a gifted mathematician, she forgoes the offer of a PhD in favour of taking over the accounts in a local vegetable canning business, a job she stays in all her life. She never marries, and basically makes Danny the focus of her existence. The siblings are touchingly devoted. Here’s what happens when Danny, aged twelve, spends a night in Maeve’s college bedroom:
Leslie, her roommate, had gone home for Easter break and so I slept in her bed. The room was so small we could have easily reached across the empty space and touched fingers. I slept in Maeve’s room all the time when I was young, and I had forgotten how nice it was to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the steadiness of her breathing
In that same Guardian interview Patchett said ‘I’ve been writing the same book my whole life — that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out’. Certainly this applies forcibly to her previous novel Commonwealth, in which two families of children are forced into an uneasy alliance as step siblings. But something similar happens in The Dutch House when Cyril Conroy introduces his children to his intended second wife Andrea. Small, blonde, and pretty, impeccably turned out, Andrea soon shows her true colours. Monstrously greedy and selfish, she brings her two small girls, Norma and Bright, to live at the house, and before long has moved them into Maeve’s beloved bedroom, forcing Maeve to move into an attic room on the top floor. Subsequently, following Cyril’s unexpectedly early death, she throws the two young Conroys out of the house completely, forbidding them ever to return – Danny hardly has time to pack a suitcase. It soon transpires that she has managed to get the house and all Cyril’s not inconsiderable property put into her name, so there is nothing for Danny and Maeve. Nothing, that is, apart from an educational trust fund in the names of all four children. Thus it is that Maeve persuades Danny to do an expensive medical degree at Columbia, despite his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps as a real estate investor – the tuition costs are so high that by the time he has graduated as a doctor (a career he will never practice), there is no money left in the fund for the education of Norma and Bright.
Although Danny and Maeve will never set foot again in the Dutch House (or at least not until nearly the end), the place exerts a curious spell over them. They are in the habit of driving to the house and parking outside, smoking and talking and reminiscing as they gaze at the impossibly beautiful building from which they have been forever excluded.
Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.
For a while after their expulsion, Danny and Maeve have a difficult life. As Patchett herself puts it, ‘They had all become characters in the worst part of a fairytale’. There’s the lost mother, the father too busy with his own affairs to care about the welfare of his children, the wicked stepmother who expels the children from their home and steals their rightful inheritance. But, like all good fairy stories, reconciliation and closure are achieved at the end. Without giving too much away, part of this process is achieved through the return of the mother, who the children have resented throughout most of their lives. At first Elna is difficult to love – she abandoned her children to care for orphans in India, and has spent her entire life looking after the sick and disadvantaged. As a character she interrogates the concept of goodness: is her devotion to helping the poor and needy enough to cancel out her abandonment of her children? Danny in particular is angry and resentful, and if anything is made more so when Maeve bonds with their mother. Finally, through some surprising (and immensely satisfying) events, things settle to a satisfactory conclusion.
I had been really looking forward to reading this, on the strength of my relatively slight experience of Patchett’s earlier work, and I certainly was not disappointed. She is a writer of great humanity, tremendously perceptive, thought-provoking, and ultimately heart-warming. Highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and can also be found at Harriet Devine’s Blog.
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House (Bloomsbury, 2019). 978-1526614964, 352pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)