Review: The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is an absorbing and elegant family drama, spanning across several generations of the Conroy family. It contains the comforting and familiar elements of a generational family saga, as our narrator Danny takes us through his childhood: growing up with his sister Maeve, a formidable father, an absent mother, and an evil stepmother. But the unique pull of this novel comes from the magnificent house looming at the centre of everything. The Dutch House has such a strong presence in the novel that it is more like its central character than a setting.

The house first comes into the Conway family after Cyril Conroy has been quietly building up his real estate empire from one initial shrewd investment: the American Dream optimised. The house was previously owned by a Dutch family, VanHoebeeks, who in their heyday held glorious Gatsbyesque parties at the house, shrouding it in intrigue and mystique. After the VanHoebeek legacy fades, Cyril Conway purchases it as a surprise gift for his wife, Elna. The idea does not go down at all as expected, and instead a rift begins to ripple through the family – the crucial turning point being when Elna leaves the family and their home.

The story of the house and the family’s life unfolds slowly, it doesn’t follow a linear line. Just in the same way as we recall our memories of the past in patches and through reminders, Danny’s narration flits around the generations, through both memories and through stories he has picked up second hand from others.

The house’s very fabric is made up of layers of history within its present – the VanHoebeeks’ portrait still hangs in the stately home, despite the fact that the house is no longer still in that family. Their painting hangs opposite one of a young Maeve, a picture of her as a child in a red coat that is so beautifully represented on the novel’s cover. These two paintings appeared so vividly before me and were crucial imagery that pervaded throughout my reading of the novel.

Patchett speaks eloquently on many levels about how we define our own lives: our recollections of the past, how we shape our present and our imagined futures. Danny and Maeve’s whole life is shaped around the house and their childhood there – they quite literally can’t draw themselves away from the house. We see everying through Danny’s eyes, and early on in the novel a university student style philosophical conversation between Danny and Maeve draws our attention to the fact that this means everything we have been told about the past is shaped by Danny’s feelings about it. He himself admits that he cannot objectively separate the truth about himself from his past.

I absolutely loved the development of these characters and their relationships over the years. I felt that I was looking through the tall glass walls of the house into this family’s lives. Danny and Maeve’s sibling relationship was a joy to read about- who can tease, critique, love and protect you like a sibling? The complex relationship between Maeve and Caelete, as the closest women in Danny’s life (his sister and his wife), is also fantastically depicted.

But my lasting memories of this novel will be of the Dutch House itself. This majestic, stately house with its strange architecture and layers of history. Its ornaments and hidden passageways and the bay window surrounded by velvet curtains (the perfect reading nook of book lovers’ dreams). The house represents everything: different things to different characters, or at different points in their lives. It is mesmerising, and its pull is completely undeniable.

Many book loving friends have recommended some of Patchett’s earlier works to me, particularly Commonwealth and Bel Canto. After the elegant and compelling The Dutch House, I’m definitely going to seek out these other books and can see Patchett becoming a much returned to author for me!

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett publishes on the 24th September, with Bloomsbury. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review.

Sophie @Sophie_Jo_Books 📚🐾

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