Book Review-The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Book review-The Dutch House

Author- Ann Patchett

I picked up the book on a whim, taken in by the cover page. This is the first of Ann Patchett’s that I have read. The Dutch House reminds me of Manderley from Rebecca which is a returning obsession of mine. Imposing, opulent, statuesque. In both the novels, the Houses themselves were central characters ,playing a singularly decisive role in charting the course of the occupants lives .

The Dutch House
The Dutch House

The Dutch House spawns over 5 decades, tracing the lives of its inhabitants. This is a mansion set in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The house stuffed with European artifacts, ornate mirrors, fancy windows, is bought as a surprise by real estate Mogul Cyril Conroy for his wife and kids. The wife Elna, who is intimidated and ashamed in equal parts by the grandeur of the house abandons the family . The 2 kids Maeve and Danny are brought under the ministrations of the Nanny, Housekeeper and Cook and a distant father. Maeve quickly grows up to assume the role of a pseudo -mother for Danny. But the Loss of the father and the mother is truly Maeve’s more than Danny’s because Danny was merely a child of 3, while Maeve was 10. The unspooling of her family with her mother’s abandonment and father’s aloofness  made her loss total and complete .

“I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen, the ship in the waves of the grandfather clock rocking the minutes away.”

“Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her.”

Maybe that is Maeve’s motivation in life to forever look out for little kids as she does later with her step sisters .Enter the scheming stepmother ,who dispossesses them of their  inheritance on the death of their father ,the book seems to be drawing a little from fairy-tales too .

While, Danny is the narrator here, I feel the story should have been told by Maeve. It is her story really. She is the more colorful character. She is Danny’s closest friend, teacher and his only family. The book really builds on the sibling bond .It brings meaning and depth to their relationship by focusing on the sacrifices and accommodations they make for each other without much ado.

The book dwells upon many truisms of our life. Like the fact that everyone has a different version of the same past. And even that version is subject to myriad iterations over a period of time.

“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 most profound though is the one below.

 “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it”

We never get over the misfortunes in our lives, and unfailingly recount it to whoever would be willing to lend a sympathetic ear. Before we know it becomes a habit so difficult to break out of that it even becomes the stuff of conversation starters!!!

The obsession the brother-sister duo had with the Dutch house , periodically returning to just park on the street to look at it was similar . It also was a constant reminder of thei loss of their inheritance and  privileged life .

The underpinning of the book is the fact that time is a great equaliser. Much to our chagrin it has the potential to undo all of life’s certainties even that seems to be cast in stone . The circle of life does come ultimately together with its fair share of heartbreaks and tears.

Multi-layered and thought provoking “The Dutch House” is well- written without the use of obtuse vocabulary and prolix prose . Peppered with humor and wryness ,the book makes for a good read.

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