“The Dutch House” By Ann Patchett. HarperCollins, New York, 2019. 337 pages. $27.99
Ann Patchett’s newest book, a novel titled “The Dutch House,” tells the story of a brother and sister who, early on in their lives, lose everything but each other. The house in the title is their constant - a place where hope, despair and reckoning all take a turn.
To reveal this family to us, Patchett moves back and forth in time. Her strategy amps up dread and suspense, revealing key events when it seems we can wait no longer. What happened to the children’s father? Where is their mother? We are captives by the end of page one.
Patchett’s storyteller is Danny, the brother who is seven years younger than his sister Maeve. He’s smart and funny, but comes to realize that for much of his youth he was “asleep to the world.” Nor was he alert to the dangers right in front of him. He and Maeve, he says, “lacked imagination.” Patchett, however, has no such deficit.
Cyril Conroy, the father, accumulates rental properties in the Philadelphia area. He grows his business slowly and deliberately. The family becomes wealthy without realizing it. The most overt sign of wealth is the Dutch house Cyril purchases as a surprise for his wife, Elna. She is put off by the size, the disrepair, the darkness of the house built in 1922 by a wealthy Dutch couple. The couple abandoned everything including portraits, furniture, dishes. Abandonment hangs in the air, thick as dust. It’s not long before Elna inches her way out of the family’s life and finally disappears. Maeve, whose health is compromised by diabetes, becomes dangerously ill and Cyril forbids further contact with Elna.
Cyril runs his business without extravagance. He’s hands-on, making building repairs using tools he keeps in the trunk of his car, collecting rents in person and dealing with problem tenants face to face. As Danny gets older, Cyril brings him along to help collect rents. It’s work Danny likes and his primary way of interacting with his detached and distant father.
Maeve and Danny have a close relationship. They appreciate each other’s wit and as the family deteriorates, Maeve plays a significant role in Danny’s oversight. They become even more allied when Cyril meets and eventually marries Andrea, an unknowable young woman of 32 with two young daughters. Her early visits to the house seem more about the house than any relationship available to her inside that house. She would linger, says Danny, “like a virus.” She was “truly intolerable.” Her two daughters kept to themselves, playing in an abutting room. “They were nothing more than sound,” says Danny.
The father dies young and unexpectedly. Shortly afterward Andrea evicts Danny. In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book, she gives the blindsided teenager no time to pack. Maeve, who’s at work, moves Danny into her apartment where she gives him her bedroom and she takes the couch. Cyril left no will and no safety net for his children. A college trust fund is well endowed and, out of spite, Maeve insists that Danny go to medical school so that he can spend down the trust. Any leftover funds would revert to Andrea. Danny’s education is Maeve’s act of revenge.
Danny is a lot like his father. He buys his own wife a house she doesn’t like. He’s not paying attention and admits he’s “suppressed by nature.” And like his father, he sees the Dutch house, in the moonlight, as “enormous, preposterous, spectacular.” He and Maeve frequently sit together in the car and contemplate the house and their story from a distance. “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune,” says Danny, “fallen in love with it.” Or perhaps they were celebrating their survival.
The misfortunes could have been devastating but Maeve takes charge and Danny does what’s required of him. Together they arrive at a place where the great new surprises revealed themselves as shocking but not necessarily life threatening.
The past was devastating. To persevere and not succumb to a lifetime of bitterness, Danny and Maeve turned to each other. Maeve and Danny’s past was the house and that house, says Danny, “took away all sense of proportion.” The brother and sister where abandoned, left to chance. They saved each other at a cost to both of them. Then they were asked to do more. The dark and lovely story has a ways to go before Patchett declares it finished.
Patchett’s story of family replaying old history is full of wisdom and intrigue and wonderful writing. The book she wrote is a beauty, and it is not an easy one to put down.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.