A Modern Fairy Tale

For most of us, our first brush with literature are fairy tales. They are amongst one of our earliest literary influences. Stories like Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella gave us our first taste of storytelling. They have regaled us with awe-inspiring stories that helped shape our initial perspectives of magic, fantasy, hope, and even love. They roused in us the yearning for worlds beyond the mundane. They were our escape. Their influence also transcends time as vestiges of their influence reverberate in contemporary literature. They are wells of inspiration upon which new stories and tales are built.

In her latest work, The Dutch House, Ann Patchett tries to channel these influences. Patchett’s eighth novel, it was published in the second half of 2019. The titular Dutch House pertains to a mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, purchased by Cyril Conroy, a newly-minted property magnate, in 1946. Built in 1922, the mansion was bought by Conroy as a surprise to his wife, Elna. Rather than be excited by the prospect of moving into an opulent house, Elna was overwhelmed and overawed by the grandeur. As the days passed and the longer she stayed in their new home, Elna was slowly turning into a shadow of her old self.

The couple also had two children, Maeve and Danny, who they raised in their new home. The older sibling, Maeve, was only five when the family moved to the Dutch House. However, when the siblings were ten and three-years old, respectively, their mother abandoned them to devote herself working with the poor in India. Left with an emotionally-distant father, they relied on each other, with Maeve caring after her brother, assuming the role of a mother. Still reeling from the unexplained abandonment by their mother, a new character was introduced by their father – Andrea. Andrea, recently widowed, eventually moved in with her two daughters and became the house’s new new mistress.

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

~ Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

Andrea’s fragile demeanor, however, belied the schemer hidden underneath her beauty. Forced to submit to the tyrannical rule of their stepmother, the bond between the Maeve and Danny grew tighter. They suddenly lost all their privileges as their father took the backseat to Andrea’s domineering personality. The siblings’ fortune turned further south when their father died suddenly of a heart attack while inspecting a building site. As Maeve was already attending college, Danny was ejected by their stepmother from their childhood home. Danny was thrown into her sister’s care. Except for an educational trust fund Danny shares with his stepsisters, Maeve and Danny were totally cut off from their father’s last will and testament.

What kept the narrative together is the relationship between Maeve and Danny. The narrative follows their journey as they step out of the citadel that is the Dutch House and venture out into the world on their own. Maeve coaxed her brother to bilk the scholarship fund their father setup for him and his stepsisters by pursuing a career in medicine. Playing along to his sister’s plan of vengeance, Danny enrolls at Columbia University. However, Danny’s heart was not in medicine. After years of accompanying his father collecting rent from their tenants, he sees a better future in realty.

However, moving on from the past is no easy task, as Maeve and Danny would soon learn. Everything they did are tied back to where they came from. Danny, the novel’s main narrator, has reckoned, “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 ghost of the Dutch House follows them even after they’ve grown up. There was something about the House that made them gravitate towards it. After being shaped by pain, anger, and loss, how can one truly move past such a childhood?

There was, however, bigger ghost that loomed beyond the House. Despite the passage of years, Maeve and Danny were still haunted by the ghost of their mother. Maeve, who was ten years old when their mother left, specially, yearned for their mother’s touch. Danny, on the other hand, grew up without any sense of what a mother’s touch means. The story elucidated on forgiveness, giving rise to another moral crossroad – when is the right time, or if there is a right time, to forgive the people who have wronged? Does it follow that forgiveness means welcoming these people back into our lives?

“We were fulfilling the expectations that had been set for us: the sons of doctors were expected to become doctors so as to honor the tradition; the sons of immigrants were expected to become doctors in order to make a better life for their families; the sons who had been driven to work the hardest and be the smartest were expected to become doctors because back in the day medicine was still where the smart kids went.”

~ Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

Looming above the story of Danny and Maeve is the titular Dutch House. It was a thing of marvel, fully furnished with an ornamented dining room ceiling, six bedrooms on the second floor, and even a grand ballroom on the third floor. It is the grand palace that everyone dreams of. Contrary to expectations, there was nothing palpably Dutch about it. Its greatest folly was that it derived its name from the provenance of the couple, the VanHoebeek, who had commissioned it. The VanHoebeeks have long since passed away but their presence still lingered in every nook and cranny of the enormous house. The portraits of the former owners were still prominently displayed.

The Dutch House is, in itself, an allegory. To Cyril, it represented everything he worked hard for. However, to his first wife, Elna it was a monstrosity that represented everything that she resented – the pretentious veneer of opulence, and even the ethics of owning such a grand house. To Andrea, the proverbial wicked stepmother, the Dutch House was the product of scheming and the promise of a better tomorrow; it was everything she has dreamt of. To Maeve and Danny, the Dutch House represented everything that they have lost.

The novel explored the dynamics of sibling relationships and the complications of dysfunctional families. Another prevailing subject that permeated throughout the narrative was motherhood. The exploration of the subject – through Andrea the evil stepmother, and Elna the charitable biological mother – was polarizing. The dichotomy was stark, too monochromatic. The representation was heavy-handed and underdeveloped. The portrayal of women was also lacking. They were mostly relegated to the role of caretakers. Maeve was bright but she gave up on her dreams and ambitions to ensure that her brother succeeds. Celeste, Danny’s wife, was committed to smoothening the path for her husband.

One of Patchett’s biggest accomplishment in The Dutch House is the novel’s captivating atmosphere. It was further complimented by her compelling language and captivating writing; it helped propel the narrative forward. Memory and history permeated all throughout. However, the gains she made was undone by the lack of dynamics in the narrative which can be summarized on two seminal points. Whilst Patchett brilliantly and poignantly unspools the complexity of family life, especially in the first half, the novel loses its character midway as it started to meander.

“That night in my sister’s bed I stared at the ceiling and felt the true loss of our father. Not his money or his house, but the man I sat next to in the car. He had protected me from the world so completely that I had no idea what the world was capable of. I had never thought about him as a child. I had never asked him about the war. I had only seen him as my father, and as my father I had judged him. There was nothing to do about that now but add it to the catalog of my mistakes.

~ Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

The plot hit a plateau and it never progressed from that point on. The flat plot resulted into a predictable narrative where the characters behaved as one would expect them to be. It didn’t help that the main characters were passive. For a coming-of-age novel, neither Maeve nor Danny exhibited any signs of growth or development. Danny was subservient and never earned his voice. It became apparent, as the narrative moved forward, that the siblings were irrevocably tied to the Dutch House. They were stuck in their memories, frozen in time and they never were able to move on from what they have lost.

The Dutch House wasn’t always on-point but Patchett riveted in her atmospheric storytelling. The elements of fairy tale gave the narrative a different texture. The subtle but wonderful language made for a compelling read. In weaving the story of Maeve and Danny, Ann Patchett navigated the curves, dynamics, and dramas of family life. She also explored the intimate and complex spaces between siblings. Maeve and Danny were like Hansel and Gretel who had to find their way through the big dark forest after they have been left orphan. However, the heart and the purpose of the story was obscured. The story barely scratched the surface; it was buried in the passivity. Happily ever after, as we all have realized, is not for everyone.

Ratings

47%

Characters (30%) – 12%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 7%

I honestly wasn’t looking forward to Ann Patchet’s The Dutch House, especially considering how my reading experience with Bel Canto went. However, some positive reviews (it had high ratings in Goodreads) made me change my mind. I was also hoping that it would give me a better perspective of Patchett’s prose. To some extent, I did enjoy The Dutch House. I liked the complex relationship between siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy. Patchett’s prose was so atmospheric and her language wonderful that I was slowly drawn in. I did find it a little trope-ish, even fairy tale-ish (complete with the allegorical evil stepmother). I didn’t mind it though. However, the main lamentation I had was the passivity of the characters and especially the narrator, Danny. The narrator’s passivity was frustrating to read and witness. Along the way, the plot got lost in the passivity.

Book Specs

Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 337
Genre: Coming-of-age story, Historical Fiction, Domestic Fiction

Synopsis

At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to build an immense real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everything he loves.

The story is told by Cyril’s son, Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled by their stepmother from the house where they grew up. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is each other. It is this unshakable bond that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.

Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite very outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn narrative of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, their relationship between an indulged brother and ever-protective sister is finally tested.

The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love, forgiveness, how we want to see ourselves and who we really are. It is filled with suspense, and though you may read it quickly to discover what happens, Danny and Maeve will stay with you for a very long time.

About the Author

To learn more about Ann Patchett, click here.