Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, longlisted for the Women’s Prize and a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, is about a lot of different things all at once. But it’s not really about a house.
The titular Dutch House deliberately isn’t depicted on the cover (at the author’s insistence). It’s what you might call a folly, preposterous and ostentatious, although we know very few details about its architecture – the same descriptions recur throughout the book.
The house is a stage for the Conroy family across forty years. (One thing to say about this book is it’s a multi-generational saga.) Before the book begins, they’re a family of four – Cyril and Elna, and Maeve and Danny. Ann Patchett wanted to write about blood siblings in this book having explored adopted siblings in Run and step-siblings in Commonwealth. But from the first chapter we know the Conroys are no longer a nuclear family, not that the term was used when the book begins in the 1950s – Elna left for India (of all places) when Danny was too young to remember her. Maeve fiercely preserves the memory of their mother for both siblings.
Someone else has gone, too, Fluffy, a nanny who is blamed for an accident which has left Danny no scars at all. These absences are replaced to a degree by a jolly pairing of housekeeper and cook. Then along comes Andrea, with her two young daughters, who marries Cyril – or rather, fills a gap in his life. And immediately pushes Danny and Maeve out of the Dutch House. But for a very long time they can’t quite let it – and the past – go.
You could say the book is about Danny Conroy, a man who knowingly allows himself to become the ‘project’ of two strong-willed, passionate women – first of all Maeve and later his wife Celeste. Who, if anyone, is at fault in such a scenario when things don’t work out? (That’s not much of a spoiler, I promise you.) Obviously, there’s a degree of manipulation going on here as much as an act of submission. Maybe a more interesting question in The Dutch House is – who suffers in such a scenario? Is the reason Maeve never marries and has a family of her own because she is so devoted to Danny’s welfare, even when he is grown up? Is the reason Danny seems so detached in his marriage (though we assume he remains faithful) because the examples he’s been set badly prepare him for dealing with love himself? Danny is narrating the story so we know he’s lived to tell the tale or maybe, to use his own word, to decode it.
The Dutch House is a book about good intentions but it sure isn’t an advertisement for selflessness. Given what I’ve said about Danny it’s probably about gratitude. It’s a book about wealth, certainly – exploring questions such as, what can really be bought? What is probably priceless? What to do when you have money – or lack it? And in that sense it’s a book about America and the American Dream. It’s a panoramic, immersive book but economical with it – Ann Patchett knows how to deftly jump over years to show the moments that illuminate the future.
It’s hugely desirable for novels to be redemptive at the end but I couldn’t help but think that as Danny approaches the latter years of his life he settles for a kind of resignation or acceptance of what’s lost, perhaps what was never truly his. Perhaps he gets what’s coming to him. So it’s a real joy when Ann Patchett bestows the final glowing moments of the story on a beautiful minor character who will probably – if she hasn’t already – break the spell the house has over its inhabitants. Certainly, she’ll give it much-needed new life. And a future.
I loved The Dutch House from start to finish, as I’ve loved all Ann Patchett’s novels. It’s perhaps her best book but quite likely only till the next one. She’s that kind of writer. She’s brilliant.
The Dutch House is published by Bloomsbury.
See also Jon Appleton's review of Commonwealth.