When Cyril Conroy buys the Dutch House, he means it as a surprise for his wife, Elna. More glass than brick, with marble floors, gilt ceiling, and even a ballroom, their move from a tiny New York City apartment to this enormous home in Philadelphia is jarring for humble Elna. Bought from the Vanhoebeeks after their bankruptcy, the house also comes with their servants and all of their wordly possessions. Elna tries to adjust as the children, Maeve and Danny, marvel at their new life, but her selflessness and desire to help the neediest of society contradicts her new luxurious lifestyle. She begins to disappear, sometimes for weeks at a time, until one day she leaves for India and doesn’t return.
Elna’s departure spells the beginning of the end for the Conroy children, who are soon thrown into what feels like a dark fairy tale. With an evil stepmother and an aloof and mostly absent father, the siblings are instead cared for with warmth by their housekeeping staff. But this can only last so long and eventually they find themselves thrown into a life their father had worked so hard for them to escape. Danny and Maeve stick together more than ever before, each being the only thing the other has. They grow up and grow roots, but despite how far they drift they always end up back at the Dutch House, bitter and longing for what was lost.
But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of
what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing
it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.
The novel is narrated by Danny, who tells the story of his past by flitting between time periods. Despite Danny’s narration, it was Maeve I felt most drawn to, and the most invested in; ironic considering it is Danny whom she invests in solely, using him as a vehicle to deliver her revenge upon their former stepmother, but also caring for him like no one else. The love Danny and Maeve have towards each other burns through the pages; to an extent you can understand the frustration of Danny’s wife when even as a reader you feel like a third wheel, intruding on the private reminiscences between them on the many occasions they find themselves sat outside their old home.
Patchett’s rich writing and vivid descriptions of the Dutch House, which are returned to and reinforced with each visit by the Conroy children, brings the home to life in all its gilt glory. The house becomes a character in and of itself; and a fickle one at that. You get a sense that one minute it is rooting for Danny and Maeve, and the next, conspiring against them.
A hugely character driven novel, I found myself stopping around a quarter of the way through and thinking ‘Wait, what has actually happened?’ The plot itself eventually begins to take shape, but you don’t care how long it takes to get there because the characters are so rich, every single one of them, and so carefully crafted that you don’t really need much of a plot for the book to come alive. When the narrative does take shape, it’s clear that the story is of Danny and Maeve, not the house, but simultaneously the house is Danny and Maeve’s story. Their relationship has to shift and adapt as years pass, and they make their own makeshift family with their old housekeepers. Despite this, there is always the lingering presence, or rather absence, of their mother; a mystery which propels the story ahead.
With a novel like this, I would normally say I devoured it in a matter of days, but I actually savoured The Dutch House far longer than I usually would. I found myself returning to it like an old friend, settling into it like a home, comforted by the tenderness between the Conroy siblings. I don’t remember the last time I had such an emotional reaction to the ending of a novel, which has a left me a little bereft and hesitant to start anything new for fear that whatever I begin simply won’t measure up to The Dutch House. This is my first Ann Patchett book but it certainly won’t be my last and I can’t wait to see how she applies her sumptuous writing to other stories.
Rating: 5 / 5 stars
The Dutch House is out now.
*I received a free e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*