Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Dutch House

Review by Ann Skea

The Dutch House.
Ann Patchett.
Bloomsbury. 2019.
ISBN 978 1 5266 1495 7.

The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house's architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived.

By the time Danny Conroy, the narrator of this story, came to live in this grand house with its huge glass window, decorative wrought-iron work, and third-floor ballroom, the VanHoebeeks were long dead and the house and contents had been sold to Danny's father to pay off their debts. Danny had lived there with his sister, Maeve, who was seven years older than him, and his father, a property developer who, as Danny comments, "was always more comfortable with his tenants than he was with the people in his office or the people in his house." His mother, too, had been there until he was three years old. Her disappearance had remained a mystery to him and his sister. Only later in the book does he record how this mystery was finally solved.

Danny does not remember his mother. In her absence, he was lovingly cared for by family servants, first Fiona (known as Fluffy), then, when Fluffy is dismissed for hitting him with a spoon (about which we learn more later), by sisters Sandy and Jocelyn. But it was really Maeve who took up the job of mothering him. It was to her that he went when, as a child, he had bad dreams, and it is she who, throughout the book, remains his closest confident and friend, even after his marriage to Celeste.

When Danny was seven, his father brought a young, attractive woman called Andrea to the house for the first time. Danny remembers that even on her first visit, she seemed more interested in the house than in meeting him and his sister. Looking back, he believes "It had been Andrea's goal for years to get inside the house, to loop her arm through our father's arm when going up the wide steps and across the red-tiled terrace." Even his father once joked that she married him for the house. And once his father is married to Andrea, she turns out to be a modern version of the wicked, fairy-tale step-mother.

Andrea and her two young daughters move in, and she immediately alienates Sandy and Jocelyn by reorganizing the household and interfering with their cooking arrangements. Then, with Maeve temporarily away at college in New York, she "reconfigures" the sleeping arrangements, giving Maeve's beautiful large room to her own eldest daughter, Norma. Maeve is not consulted and returns home to find all her belongings have been moved to an attic room on the third floor.

Maeve, in shock, jokes: "It's just like The Little Princess! The girl loses all of her money, and so they put her in the attic and make her clean the fireplaces."

She does not blame Norma, who is younger than her and who is upset about the change, but begins to spend less time at the house, and as soon as she graduates and has a job, she rents an apartment of her own.

However, this is not Andrea's worst act. When Danny's father dies suddenly of a heart attack, she takes over the family business, displacing Maeve who has always dealt with the accounts for her father. Then, completely unexpectedly, she summons Maeve to the Dutch House and tells her she must take Danny to live with her.

"He isn't my son," she said, and right there her voice broke. "You can't expect me to raise him. He isn't my responsibility. Your father never told me I was going to have to raise his son."

"No one is asking you—" I started, but she held up her hand.

"This is my house," she said. "I deserve to feel safe in my house..."

"This is your house?" Maeve said.

"When your father died, that's when you showed yourself. Both of you. He left this house to me. He wanted me to have it. He wanted me to be happy here, me and the girls. I need you to take him—go upstairs and get his things and leave. This isn't easy for me."

Danny is just 15 years old. He leaves the house with just a small suitcase and two trash bags full of clothes he will soon grow out of, plus a few books from his desk. Later, he regrets that in the shock and stress of the moment, he took nothing which had belonged to his father, and he left behind his blanket, which his mother had pieced together from her old dresses, and the pressed-glass butter dish, which was the only thing left in the house which had belonged to her.

Andrea was now in control of everything except a trust fund for educational expense which Lawyer Gooch, a friend of Danny's father, had persuaded him to set up. Maeve determines that Danny will drain that fund. So, Danny, against his own desires, undertakes long and intensive studies and eventually qualifies as a doctor.

All of this is the bare-bones of the story, but Ann Patchett is too good a story-teller not to give her characters psychological complexities that make their decisions, actions, judgements, and mistakes fully human. Maeve, who is diabetic and prone to sudden back-outs when she is under stress or omits to inject her medication, is often of great concern to Danny. She is determined, strong, intelligent, and likeable, and she shares a dry sense of humor with Danny, who still turns to her whenever he has problems. For both of them this closeness seriously impacts their relationships with others in their lives.

The story, too, moves between past and present as Danny and Maeve grow older and their lives change. Together, they sometimes drive to the Dutch House and sit outside in Maeve's car sharing their thoughts and their memories of living there. Danny remembers being taken by his father to collect rents from tenants in the properties he owned; he remembers how much he enjoyed that, and how much he learned about speculating in property development and becoming successful at it. It is a skill he puts to use. He learns, too, how his parents met, how poor they had once been, and how his father had managed to buy the Dutch House as a surprise for his mother. Occasionally, through the large glass windows, they see Andrea.

Maeve remembers their mother and how close she had once been to her. And eventually, there are dramatic events which solve the mystery of their mother's disappearance and which lead to the Conroys re-entering the Dutch House and to a strange kind of redress for the traumas and losses they have suffered.

This may be a modern-day fairy tale for adults, but it is full of Patchett's understanding of the complexities of family relationships and family loyalties. Danny's wife and children, his parents, and the former servants, Fluffy, Sandy and Jocelyn, all play their part as the story unfolds, and dramatic events reveal the very different nature of each of them. All of which makes for an absorbing and satisfying story.


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