A Poignant Buildings-roman

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

Bloomsbury, 352pp, £18.99, ISBN 781526614964

reviewed by Rhiannon Morris

Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is a novel that stares back. The burning gaze of the young woman who adorns the front cover is transfixing. It is Maeve Conroy, sister of narrator Danny, painted as a young girl by the artist she is in love with. It promises a lot on first sight: intimacy, connection, aesthetic beauty, the compelling pull to look. This book, in its cover alone, promises so much of a story that I couldn’t help but hold it to those expectations and judge.

Although Patchett has had no short run of success, winning multiple literary prizes with a body of work stretching from political thrillers to relationship sagas, I was unaware of her before picking up The Dutch House. This was probably due to my recent confinement to an English degree syllabus, where little writing from the last two decades made it onto my reading list and warm voices like Patchett’s (bookshop owner and author with a southern sweetness) were scarce. The tone of The Dutch House is soft, even when its subject matter is meaty: grief, abandonment, family breakdowns. She writes in a retrospective voice, Danny narrating his childhood and adult experiences with tenderness, weariness and hard-worn wisdom. This is the true strength of the novel, implicit in its striking title alone: the focus on intimate connection, the ways in which we painfully tether ourselves to family, ideas and things, enmeshing our life in the tangled undergrowth of the past while ceaselessly beating on towards the present.

Time and again, our adult narrator implies that too many steps backwards threatens to drag us down, trapping us in the stagnant deep. Yet Patchett also embeds the complexity and pain of extracting oneself from past injury and turmoil, rooting itself deeply into our psyche. Her meditation on our relationship with the past is set within and against a closed door. Every few months, Danny and Maeve sit in a parked car outside of their family home (the Dutch House), unable to cross the threshold since their stepmother Andrea cast them out after their father’s death. Their mother’s disappearance in their youth and, later, their father’s death inspires a strong bond of survival. Even before Danny’s wife Celeste makes the comparison – ‘You just keep walking through the woods holding hands no matter how dark it gets’ – it is easy to see echoes of Hansel and Gretel in the novel: the domineering, prickly stepmother who banishes two children from home and security, the rational yet passive father figure, the failure of parental love and the triumph of self-reliance and ingenuity. One could almost see Maeve leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in her wake as she ferries her brother away, encouraging him to study medicine to dry up the educational trust fund left for Danny and Andrea’s daughters, Norma and Bright. Maeve’s anger and bitterness form the emotional trail back to the house, dragging her brother along.

These gothic, mythic undertones are a large part of the novel’s thrill and readability, its driving emotive force. Our sympathies are immediately evoked for the motherless children cruelly displaced, and our hatred is incited against the wicked stepmother. It is familiar, and Patchett wants us to cling to this familiarity to invest in the story, but she also wants us to make the same mistakes as the characters, tying into another central theme of the novel. ‘Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?’ Danny asks.

Whilst Maeve remembers Andrea as a vindictive woman who gave away her bedroom to one of her own daughters and treats the kitchen staff with disdain, Danny has other memories (although very few): Andrea’s love for her children, the pastoral care she shows him when he’s ill. Maeve idolises the mother she loved and lost, but Danny’s feelings are more complex – he is unable to understand how a mother could leave her children, even if pulled by a higher cause. The homecoming of Elna Conroy, the mother who vanished into thin air, marks a turn in the novel’s tone. Suddenly, Danny and Maeve are divided by Maeve’s blinding love for Elna and Danny’s mistrust. A new question is posed: who is the real wicked mother? Is the villainy or virtue of either authentic, or simply a fabricated memory? Patchett lets the question linger but doesn’t quite answer it, with too many cases of unreliable memory and emotional subjectivity clouding truth.

We learn that Elna, described as a ‘saint’ by former employees, abandoned her children in order to dedicate her life to charity work. She was appalled by the plush opulence of the Dutch House, an eccentric architectural homage to the past, a tall building complete with a ballroom, still adorned with the furniture and possessions of its previous owners, the Vanhoebeeks, and could not settle into its extravagant display of wealth. Meanwhile, Andrea fell for its charm but failed to love the children who called it their home. It’s an interesting moral detour, though Elna’s arrival dominates the narrative’s focus, diminishing the interrogation of Danny and Maeve’s relationship – a knot of contradictions, fragility and fierce love that portrays the human search to understand how we came to be and who’s to blame. Danny’s insight, for example, is muted as he views Elna and Maeve’s happiness with a forced neutrality, silenced by the complexity of his own anger. This is part of his own struggle to forgive and forget, but it detracts from the narrative’s richness, rendering the second half of the novel not quite as emotionally satisfying as the first. The siblings’ long-awaited reunion with Andrea is similarly unfulfilling. Suffering from memory loss and confusion, abandoned by one daughter and looked after reluctantly by another, she cannot comprehend their meeting. The blend of fairy-tale justice and realism feels out of place. In an interview with The Guardian, Patchett stated that she deliberately shielded Andrea’s humanity to prevent sympathy and keep her a villain, but this seems to contradict the novel’s exploration of human fallibility.

Towards the end, the novel’s sentimentality almost works against it. The final pages close on the Dutch House, no longer occupied by the deceased Andrea but by Danny’s daughter, May, after Norma restores ownership to the banished son. Now the house hosts glamorous parties to her young and joyful friends – an overly sanguine development that eradicates the intricate reflections Patchett has taken care to build. The fairy-tale gets its happy ending but struggles to reconcile the many strands it tries to explore.

That being said, the novel delivers on its promise of inescapable enthralment and intimacy. Patchett draws us into the personal histories of two children, painfully stumbling into adulthood through their intricately woven connection to each other and the house that formed the beginning and end of their childhood. From his father, Danny inherits a fascination with real estate, and the novel charts his growth as an act of buying and selling: Danny and Maeve build and renovate themselves, choosing which parts of the past to cling onto or to let go. In the backdrop is the Dutch House, littered with the dusty paintings of long-dead owners, a reminder that inspecting our interiority – the corners in which we’ve allowed too much dust to gather, the rooms we haven’t decluttered or redecorated for years – is necessary to evaluate and invigorate our place in the present.
Rhiannon Morris is a freelance critic based in South Wales.