I think some authors could write about paint drying and it would be worth reading. Ann Patchett is one of those authors. The Dutch House is the third book I’ve read by Patchett (Bel Canto, Commonwealth), and it did not disappoint.
Danny and Maeve grow up in the Dutch House, a gorgeous jewel-box of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The house seems to “float several inches above the hill it sat on.” Danny and Maeve’s father, Cyril, had bought the house as a surprise for their mother, Elna, but she didn’t like the house – or so the story goes – and left the family for parts unknown. When the novel opens, Danny and Maeve are 8 and 15 respectively, and being introduced to their father’s ‘friend’, Andrea and her two young daughters Norma and Bright. The arrival of Andrea into their lives changes everything for the siblings.
The Dutch House is not a linear story. It bounces back and forth through time, covering roughly fifty years. Not every writer could manage this sort of narrative as easily as Patchett does. Although the perspective is Danny’s, readers will come to know and love (or hate) many other characters, most notably Maeve, who is the centre of Danny’s world.
She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.
When Andrea turfs them from their house, their lives are thrown into chaos. They find themselves parking in front of the Dutch House over the years, reminiscing about and redacting their past, never quite able to let go. In some ways, their lives are halted by this connection to a place.
Not much happens in the novel, but at the same time everything happens. Danny and Maeve’s lives and relationship are the story, which makes sense, really. As we’re waiting for our own plots to unfold, life is actually happening all around us. The bitter feelings Maeve clings to derail her life, but we don’t really understand that until her mother turns up out of the blue. Or we see what ends up happening to Andrea.
Patchett has written characters you will absolutely come to care about and given them lives which should remind us to care more deeply about our own, and the people we share them with.