My last Sunday Book Review until March when I will return to blogging from my winter blogging break. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. The Dutch house where Danny and Maeve grew up in Pennsylvania is the center of this story, what the house symbolized, the people who lived in it before and after, and the compulsion these siblings shared for not being able to make sense of the past that haunts them throughout their present.
A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick!
From the New York Times bestselling author of Commonwealth and State of Wonder, comes Ann Patchett’s most powerful novel to date: a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go. The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are.
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.
My 3 Star Review:
The story is told in 3 parts, narrated by Danny, the youngest of the 2 Conroy siblings who are essentially each other’s lifeline in this what reads as a broken fairy tale.
The Dutch House spans 3 generations and 5 decades, and in the beginning we are introduced to siblings Danny and Maeve who grew up in the Dutch House, named for the first owners of the home before them in 1922 by the Vanhoebeeks. The children’s mother abandoned them when they were just 10 and 4 years old shortly after moving in. Raised by their father Cyril who came from poor beginnings and managed to save enough money to start his life in the real estate/landlord business, Cyril purchased the Dutch House to raise his family, and not long after his wife Elna decides to take off and abandon her family.
Maeve and Danny are everything to each other – as children and through adult life. Their cook and housekeepers Sandy, Fluffy and Jocelyn become more of mothers to them than they’ve ever had. Eventually, Cyril remarries a mean-spirited younger woman – we don’t learn why he married her, but we’re made to understand Andrea loves money and nice things and was determined to move into the Dutch house. Andrea comes with 2 daughters, the elder of the 2, Norma, takes over Maeve’s bedroom. There is is a new distance in the home and a few years later, when the kids find out that Cyril left everything to Andrea after he died of a heart attack, Maeve finds out from the family lawyer the only funds available are for an education trust. Maeve and Danny plot that Danny will go to medical school to eat up a good chunk of the fund before Andrea’s kids can use it up. Danny goes off to medical school while Maeve gets her own apartment and they leave the Dutch House – but their hearts never leave. They spend the years getting together visiting the house by pulling up near it and revisiting their lives while sitting in the car unseen.
Danny becomes a doctor and doesn’t want to be one. He wants to be a landlord like his father, and that’s exactly what he does after becoming a doctor. He marries Celeste and has 2 children, while Maeve never marries and despite Danny’s marriage, it appears more like Danny and Maeve are married as their unshakeable bond never dissipates.
Late in the story, Elna reappears and enters back in their lives. This is where I start to feel the story a bit far-fetched. Life is a circle and often the past revisits us, but, after initially learning very little about Elna -especially why she’d leave her children, I felt very detached from the story. I kept reading the book from early on waiting and waiting to learn about the big secret why Elna left her children, but there wasn’t much mentioned other than she wanted to go help the poor. I felt it was a lame excuse for her to leave her children as there are plenty of ways to be charitable without having to leave your family without a word, just disappearing.
The story has rich characters and complicated relationships born from this dysfunctional family. It’s a tale about siblings left to fend for themselves, inheritance, and a lot of jumping back in forth in time. I felt when I first got into the book that the story was building to ‘what happened to Elna?’ but was abandoned and became secondary and then finally disappointing when she re-enters her children’s lives too far near the end of the book, unsatisfactory reasons for leaving after all the mystery throughout the book, no meat in discussions of the long gone mother finally seeing her kids again, and an unsatisfying ending with a pertinent happening out of the blue that killed it for me. (No spoilers).