A review of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Every now and then we’re all in need of a good story. And when it comes to getting lost in a truly great book, Ann Patchett is an ever-reliable address. The award-winning author’s latest novel, The Dutch House, is one of those bestsellers that has been reviewed and praised in many quarters, but after finally getting round to reading it I was pleased to see that it really does deserve its accolades. Intensely absorbing, with wonderfully vivid characters and just the right amount of emotional pull, this was, for a few days, exactly the story I wanted to sink into.
The Dutch House is one of those works of fiction that are difficult to describe, because for much of the time not an awful lot is happening – it’s a novel that is simply about life. Danny, our first-person narrator, grows up with his father and sister Maeve, older by seven years, in what is referred to as ‘the Dutch House’, an architectural marvel that catches the attention of all who glimpse it. With their mother having walked out when Danny was too young to remember, it falls to Maeve to slip into the role of mother, and it is their incredibly close brother–sister relationship that forms the heart of the novel. As we follow the siblings over half a century, through their father’s second marriage to the archetypal evil stepmother and beyond, well into their own adulthood, Patchett creates an intimate portrait of two people whose relationship is the one thing that seems to anchor them, the central column around which the houses of their individual lives can be built. She does so tenderly, with a keen eye for detail and occasional wit, not to mention a lyrical way with words that makes the novel even easier to become absorbed in.
Although Danny is an authentically flawed narrator, with a tendency to dwell (as does his sister, though to a lesser extent) on the past and its perceived injustices, both he and Maeve are instantly likeable and I found myself caring greatly for them. It is no mean feat to create characters capable of having such a hold over the reader, and particularly not to let them become cloying or otherwise irritating, but Ann Patchett excels at transporting believable thoughts and feelings, and has finely honed skills when it comes to dialogue. A lot of The Dutch House is conversation – as adults, Danny and Maeve spend many hours parked in a car outside their old house, rehashing the years they spent with Andrea, their stepmother – and this not only carries the story but allows us to get to know the characters too. Though we have just one narrator, it is easy to feel we understand the novel’s other figures intimately. Their words, rather than any inner thoughts, let us see who they are.
Setting is particularly key when it comes to The Dutch House, in which one of the major characters – the only one never to speak – is the spectacular house in which Maeve and Danny grow up. Patchett makes no bones about the fact that the building has an extreme effect on people who see and especially live in it: unconditional love or utter loathing seem to be the only options. Cast unfairly out of their home, in later life the siblings put the house on a pedestal – ‘the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country’ – but only later realise how deeply and damagingly they have been under its spell. Buildings in general play an important role in the novel, with both Danny and his father before him in the business of real estate, but they have a marked inability to make the characters truly happy, whether in a professional or personal capacity. As beautiful as it seems to be – and Patchett’s writing makes it come alive on the page – the Dutch House has something sinister about it; perhaps in a comment on the way in which we attach ourselves to material objects, our place in the world, and in doing so fail truly to see the people who surround us.
Memory, too, is a key theme of the novel, in particular how we can both warp the past and allow it to distort our future. ‘I’d never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost,’ Danny tells us, and the vague sense of mourning that pervades the novel is much to do with this feeling of having lost something indescribably precious, of it being too late. That things should be this way seems almost inevitable, yet Patchett is careful to avoid becoming either maudlin or lecturing. She has a sharp eye for human failings, and there is much about The Dutch House which seems cautionary, yet it is written always in tones of immense compassion. Only towards the end of the novel do we run the risk of things getting a little sentimental – just as the house could belong in a fairy tale, so too does the narrative arc begin moving towards just deserts and happily-ever-afters – but an emotional blow delivered with devastating bluntness helps to take the edge off this development. There is resolution at the end of the novel, a happy ending of sorts for which I was grateful, but Patchett doesn’t let us forget that life is essentially not what we expect. Balance is, after all, key.
Despite feeling I am generally in safe hands with Ann Patchett, I can’t help but approach bestselling novels with a hint of trepidation. It would be all too easy to end up disappointed, yet with The Dutch House I got more than I’d bargained for. A story to fall into, one that speaks to readers on a personal and collective level, offering a comment on human fallibility and the world we persist in living in, we have here a novel that is gentle and thoughtful, a novel that hides big things within small ones and slips them all inside your consciousness. A hugely talented author, Ann Patchett has succeeded once again in building a world to which I was willing to give myself wholly – a world to climb inside for a few moments and, whilst there, feel safe.