By Ann Patchett, A family drama about two siblings making sense of their childhood
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, her most recent novel, was released on September 24.
I’ve read a few books from Patchett in the past and really enjoy her writing. I thought Bel Canto was a lovely book, and State of Wonder was just okay, but still well written. Plus, The Dutch House’s fairytale-esque elements appealed to me along with it’s beautiful cover, so naturally it was high priority on my list of books to read.
I was out of town for a while and have been otherwise wrapped up in some other stuff, so this review took a little longer to get up than I’d intended, but here it is!
Maeve and Danny are siblings who grow up in a grand house in Elkins Park. The house is nicknamed The Dutch House, after the wealthy Dutch family that once inhabited it.
Maeve and Danny’s mother abandoned their family when they were young, so they are raised by their father and the household help instead. One day, their father brings home a woman, Andrea Smith, who he later marries. Their father is more interested in his real estate holdings than in them, and Maeve and Danny’s relationship with Andrea is fractious and later overtly hostile.
The Dutch House follows Maeve and Danny lives over many, many years as they revisit and struggle to make sense of their childhood.
See The Dutch House on Amazon.
The Dutch House is one of those books that reminds my why I love reading so much. Flipping through its pages, I feel myself drawn into the understated and engrossing story of Danny and Maeve Conroy. On the most basic level, The Dutch House is a book about two people piecing together the fragments of their youth.
As much as I enjoy flashier mystery or fantasy or adventurous stories, there is a special place in my heart I reserve for subtle stories that are elegantly told. I find Ann Patchett’s writing very pleasurable to read. It’s neither too sparse or too flowery, instead it’s crisp, clear and confident in an unassuming way.
Maeve and Danny’s childhood has a fairytale-eque quality, as if Cinderella and Hansel & Gretel were mixed together. They grow up in a wealthy household but lose everything, their mother is presumed to be dead, Andrea plays the role of the evil stepmother, and their stepsisters Nora and Bright are brought in and given preferential treatment. Like Hansel & Gretel, Maeve and Danny are forced to lean on each other and, as adults, are trying to pick up the pieces of their childhood and find a way back home.
But The Dutch House is no fairy tale and instead the book provides a sober reflection on how the stories we tell ourselves are shaped and whether the roles we cast people in should be considered or reconsidered later, with more maturity and perhaps more empathy.
That said, there were parts of the Dutch House didn’t entirely resonate with me. The conclusion of the novel felt a little too quaint or simplistic and a bit devoid of realism. And I found the character of their mother a little improbable as well, since her motivations and personality just didn’t make sense to me. Still, I realize this is a very subjective opinion, so people (or book clubs!) will likely have differing views on this, and it’s no reason not to read the book.
Read it or Skip it?
The Dutch House is a lovely and interesting story. People who enjoy family dramas or have liked Patchett’s work in the past should definitely consider this title.
It didn’t quite bring the story to a satisfying conclusion for me, but it’s such a well-written and engrossing family drama that I enjoyed it very much anyway. And I’m sure many people will like the ending just fine. Even if you feel like I did, I think you’ll probably still find something of value in this story anyway.
This would also be a fantastic book for book clubs to debate over the ending and discuss whether it makes them think about the roles they’ve cast the people in their lives into. It certainly made me think about my own childhood and the stories I’ve formed around it.
Of course, this is an understated and somewhat interior novel, so if that’s not something that interests you, then maybe try something else. Also, note that while their childhood borrows from fairytale-esque elements, this is not a fairytale-type book and doesn’t read like one. So if that’s what you’re interested in, you might want to skip this.
What do you think? Did you read this or would you consider reading it? Share your thoughts below! See The Dutch House on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Part IChapters 1 - 4 Danny and Maeve Conroy are siblings who grow up with their father, Cyril, in a grand house in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania referred to as The Dutch House. The house is named after the Dutch family, the VanHoebeeks, who lived there before them, and it is decorated with paintings of the VanHoebeeks. There's also a painting of Maeve at 10, added later. When Danny is 8 and Maeve is 15 (around 1955-ish), their father brings home a woman, Andrea Smith. Many years later (mid-sixties), Danny (now 15, attending Choate) and Maeve (early 20's), begin meeting outside the house, to spy on the house and Andrea and reflect on their childhood. Growing up, the household help were Sandy, the housekeeper, and Jocelyn, the cook. They are sisters and are caring towards Danny and Maeve. Fiona (nicknamed Fluffy) was the groundskeeper for The Dutch House when they bought it (her parents had worked for the VanHoebeeks) and became their nanny. Their father later had an affair with her. Danny and Maeve's mother Elna loves them, but disappears occasionally and finally moves to India when Maeve is 10. Maeve is heartbroken and hospitalized for two weeks afterwards from onset diabetes, possibly caused by trauma. Fluffy is fired a little while later for striking Danny in the head with a spoon, though Fluffy says it was an accident. Their father's main priority is his work, which is renting out property he owns. Cyril is originally from humble beginnings and has a bad leg from the war, but is now quite wealthy. Though Maeve is older, Danny (as the guy) is expected to take over the Conroy business one day and goes with their father the first Saturday of each month to drive around town and collect rents. Andrea is of modest means, but a young and pretty. She's also tenacious when it comes to their father. She has two young daughters, Norma and Bright. Maeve and Danny are surprised their father is okay with it, since he doesn't really like children. Andrea and their father often go out, leaving Maeve to babysit the girls without asking. Six weeks after Maeve starts college at Barnard, Andrea (31) and their father (49) get married. Soon after, Andrea demands that Norma be given Maeve's (larger, nicer) room, and Maeve be moved into the attic, since she's at college anyway. It's implied that Maeve and her father argue about it the next time she visits home. Flash forward to much later, Danny and Maeve are still meeting regularly outside the house to watch from afar. Danny has graduated from Columbia and just finished his first year of medical school, also at Columbia. Despite her stellar grades at Barnard, Maeve has been working as a bookkeeper for Otterson's, a grocery store, since graduation. Chapters 5 - 7 (Back in the past) With Maeve at college, Danny wants to visit and his father offers to drive him to New York, where he's originally from. His father shows him the neighborhood where he and their mother grew up, and they start talking about the past, which he's never talked about before. Danny finally asks him why their mother left, but he declines to say. After a lunch with Maeve, their father leaves, and Danny tells Maeve what their dad showed him. Danny returns home a few days later. After graduation, Maeve gets an apartment in Jenkintown (near Elkins Park) and her job at Otterson's. Soon after, in 1963 when their father is 53, Cyril dies. Danny and Maeve get the news first and Andrea finds out after. They are told it was from a heart attack. After the funeral, Andrea immediately kicks Maeve and Danny out of the house, and she fires Sandy and Jocelyn. In retrospect, Danny wonders if Andrea was always going to be terrible or how their actions contributed to the outcome and he thinks about the times Andrea was nice which Maeve does not want to acknowledge. He also regrets the things they left behind, like the painting of Maeve, when they were kicked out. When they discuss why their father married Andrea in the first place, Jocelyn and Sandy reason that their mother always hated the house, so their father married someone who loved the house like he did. Afterwards, they meet up with Lawyer Gooch, the family lawyer. He tells them that Andrea had maneuvered to have her name put on the house and company, which owns everything, so she has survivorship rights. There's no will. So she owns everything and they have nothing. Andrea soon sells off the entirety of the company that Danny had once been hoping to run someday. There's a trust, but it only covers the education costs for Danny, Norma and Bright, since their dad felt Maeve going to graduate school was unnecessary. To increase his education costs and prevent money from going back to Andrea, Maeve decides to send Danny to Choate for boarding school, and she wants him to go to medical school though he does not.
Part IIChapters 8 - 10 When Danny is in college in New York, while on a train back home, he meets a girl, Celeste Norcross. Celeste's parents live in Rydal, a town neighboring Elkin's Park. (In a flash forward, we find out he later marries Celeste, has two kids -- May and Kevin -- but they get divorced.) Danny dates Celeste, but they break up after his first year of medical school when she wants him to marry her. He realizes that her career plan has always been to marry him and raise kids. Without her, he realizes how much she did for him to make his life convenient. When they cross paths again, around the time Danny has just finished medical school, they get back together. Meanwhile, Danny has never wanted to be a doctor, and realizes during college he wants to use everything his father taught him to go into real estate, but doesn't have the money to invest in anything. One of his med school professors, Dr. Morey Able, helps to keep him on track in school. Finally, when he becomes a medical intern and gets paid, he's able to buy two parking spaces next to a soon-to-be-developed lot, which he later sells to be able to buy two buildings in foreclosure. He leaves the residency program to pursue a career in real estate. In a flashback, Maeve tells Danny about seeing The Dutch House for the first time when she was five and how their mother was uncomfortable with the huge, grand house that their father had purchased as a surprise for her. Chapters 11 - 13 Maeve is hospitalized from an infection, and Sandy and Jocelyn tell Danny, who goes to see her. Maeve tells him that she ran into Fluffy, who's now in her fifties, and gave Fluffy his number. Months later, Fluffy calls Danny, and he reluctantly gets together with her. She explains her affair with their father, which started after their mother left. She also says that she'd been out of sorts on the day with the spoon because Cyril had revealed he was still married and wouldn't marry her. Fluffy also tells Danny that their mother is alive and in town. She didn't tell Maeve because she didn't want to upset her. When Elna left, it was because Cyril had seen how upset Maeve was each time Elna came and went and finally told her not to come back. Fluffy ran into Elna about a year or so ago, and Elna was in the Bowery, a poor part of town. Later, Danny realizes he had once seen his mother in the ER, but hadn't recognized her. Danny feels devastated knowing his mother was so close and never found them. He thinks about how devoted Celeste has been and decides to marry Celeste. Maeve disapproves of Celeste, but helps to plan the wedding. Still living in New York, they marry and soon have their first child, May. Celeste quits her teaching job. Celeste has a troubled second pregnancy, so they hire Fluffy as a nanny for May. Kevin is soon born. Fluffy is fantastic with the children and soon becomes an integral part of their lives. Fluffy tells Danny about the VanHoebeeks and also about his parents. Cyril got rich because of a tip he got to buy property in Horsham, Pennsylvania. As a result, he bought land there dirt cheap. Soon, the Navy contacted him to buy the land because they'd been planning a base there. Suddenly, he had serious money. He started investing in properties and making more money, but never told Elna about any of it even though they were married throughout all of it. She thought they were very poor until one day he surprised her with The Dutch House. Chapters 14 - 15 Years pass and Danny's real estate business is successful while Maeve is still working at Otterson's. Maeve also helps with the taxes and bookkeeping in Danny's real estate business. They both continue to be in touch with Sandy and Jocelyn as well. Maeve is now 48, but she loves her job and Otterson trusts her so she has a lot of flexibility. As a thank you, Danny buys the place Maeve lives and gives her the deed. Maeve still does not like Celeste, and the feeling is mutual. Celeste thinks Danny spends too much time with Maeve. Maeve and Danny rarely think about the Dutch House anymore, though out of nostalgia, they drop by to stake it out and chat. They talk about how Fluffy said that their mom originally wanted to become a nun. All the times she disappeared, she had been at the convent. One night, Maeve gets sick while they are all at May's ballet performance, and Danny stays with Maeve to check on her. Early in the morning, they go to the Dutch House and see Andrea, now in her sixties, come outside. Seeing her up close and worrying about if she saw them, they realize this needs to stop. They decide not to go back anymore.
Part IIIChapters 16 - 17 Maeve has a heart attack, and Elna shows up at the hospital (Fluffy told her about the heart attack). Danny is angry and cold with Elna, but Maeve is delighted to see her. After Maeve gets out of the hospital, Elna goes to stay with her to help take care of her. Celeste thinks Danny should just let Maeve be happy, but Danny is distrustful of Elna. Elna left when Danny was very young, but Maeve had more of a childhood with her. Still, Danny drives back to Jenkintown each week in order to check up on Maeve, and often take Kevin and May too. They are happy to get to know their grandmother. When Maeve returns to work, Danny's visits decrease, though Elna continues to stay with Maeve. Maeve wants Danny to let go of his anger towards Elna. Elna had been a novice in the convent when Cyril swooped in and married her. Elna originally left them because she wanted to go out into the world and help people instead of just being in a big house with people waiting on her, but she realizes she made a mistake in leaving. Afterwards, she was too ashamed to go back and find them later. Maeve wants to cherish the time they have left with her. She also makes the point that men who leave their families aren't judged the way women are. Chapters 18 - 20 One day, Elna suggests going to the Dutch House and going in to say hi. Maeve doesn't want to, so Danny and Elna go by themselves. There, they discover that Andrea has a degenerative mental condition and that Norma has moved home to take care of her. Bright wants nothing to do with the house or her mother. Maeve claims the painting of herself on the mantle (in order to give to May since it looks like her) and walks out. Elna feels bad for Norma and Andrea and wants to help, partially as penance for abandoning her family. She decides to move in and help take care of them. Maeve vehemently disagrees with this, but she soon passes away. Danny and Celeste divorce now that Celeste can no longer blame all of her frustrations about Danny on Maeve. Danny finally has run out of anger and makes peace with Elna. Meanwhile, Sandy has moved into the Dutch House to help Elna as well. (Jocelyn passed away not long ago.) May and Kevin start spending time at the house, since Elna is living there, and May falls in love with the house. When Andrea finally passes as well, May begs Norma not to sell the house since she wants to buy it some day. May becomes an actress who is rich and famous and buys the house. She has parties and loves the house.
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