The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Maeve and Danny live of a life of contrasts. Their house is by far the grandest in their neighborhood and money is not something they ever have to think about, but their mother left when Danny was only three and Maeve ten. Their father is a taciturn man who excels at real estate, but shows little interest in either of his children. What they have is each other and it’s enough, until their father marries Andrea, a much younger woman who seems to love their home, known as the Dutch House, more than anything else. When he dies unexpectedly, she kicks Maeve and Danny out, leaving them to fend for themselves. Their story and its orbit around their old home is at the heart of Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House.
At the time Maeve is 21 and living on her own, working as an accountant. Danny is 15, works in construction on his father’s sites and plays basketball. They are blindsided by Andrea, but Maeve soon finds a way to exact her own revenge and salvage a future for Danny. It is the first of many instances where Maeve will put Danny’s needs ahead of her own. Maeve leads and Danny follows. But in the decades that follow, their childhood home haunts them. They return to sit outside its gates for long periods reminiscing and conjuring bleak outcomes for their stepmother.
Within the novel’s chapters Patchett shifts amongst time periods so that in one moment Maeve and Danny are sitting outside the Dutch House in their twenties and in the next it is the present day. This could be disorienting, but not with Patchett. There is such assurance to her writing that there is no worry about losing the narrative. She guides, we follow. There are bombshells and trip wires throughout The Dutch House, much in the same way there are in real life, which is just how Patchett portrays them. All that’s left is to fumble through and Maeve and Danny do so with a family bond that cracks and splits, but never breaks.
Recently, I’ve read a fair number of novels with siblings gone wrong (The Grammarians) or, at the very least, siblings with seriously dysfunctional relationships (The Most Fun We Ever Had). This made Maeve and Danny feel like reaching calm water after months on a stormy sea. Their love for and caring about each other is the foundation in The Dutch House. For all intents and purposes, Maeve is a mother figure to Danny and her devotion to him is touching. Which is not to say this is a novel of persevering against all odds with sweetness and light. It’s much richer than that with both Maeve and Danny have welcome depth and texture. She is resourceful, wily, and indomitable while he is the peacemaker who wants nothing more than to do what his big sister wants him to do. And yet, Patchett gives him dominance by telling the story solely from his point of view.
The Dutch House is everything I need in my fiction. Patchett’s writing is the kind I love most: tough, tender, and intelligent, with an undercurrent of wit. Just as she did in her last novel, Commonwealth, she takes an unusual, negative circumstance and through it illuminates the power of family ties. She makes me believe and care for her characters and their lives so deeply that my only criticism of the novel is that it didn’t end the way I wanted it to. There is no flaw in Patchett’s writing, she just makes a choice I didn’t agree with. Which is one more indication of her gift—her stories strike so deep at the heart of human nature everyone interprets them through their own lens.