BookBrowse Reviews The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

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The Dutch House

by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett X
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
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  • Published:
    Sep 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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A pair of siblings with a close bond lean on each other throughout a lifetime of bitterness over the stepmother that wronged them, returning again and again to their childhood home.

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself." - Danny Conry, The Dutch House

The Dutch House is my introduction to Ann Patchett, which, after reading it, surprises me. I had only heard of her in passing, while always on the way to another author, another novel, never really turning her way. Why did it take me so long to discover her? As I see it now, Patchett is one of those novelists, like John Irving or Anne Tyler, who come to you at just the right time, when you didn't even know you needed them. During that initial encounter with the author, you realize that they're crucial to you in that time, a gentle guide through whatever problems you've been facing. They give you characters going through similar situations, not for comparison, as if to say, "Oh, I'm so glad that's not me," but to give hope. These characters have endured and have come through, and so will you.

The main feature of the novel is the titular historical home, perched just outside Philadelphia, around which the lives of close siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, seven years apart, revolve in a 50-year span. The house is so named because of the Dutch husband-and-wife VanHoebeeks who built and owned it from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. The siblings' father, Cyril, a burgeoning building magnate, bought it for their mother Elna, believing she would love it, but he was dead wrong. She hated every moment she was there and eventually left the family. Since their emotionally-unavailable father was not up to the task, Maeve was then forced to raise Danny largely on her own.

Their lives become even more complicated when Cyril marries Andrea. She brings her daughters, Norma and Bright, in tow, and it becomes clear early on she only married Cyril to have the house. When Cyril suddenly dies, Andrea feels no further obligation toward his children. She sends Danny away to stay with Maeve, who is already living on her own. The siblings soon realize Andrea now owns the house and their father's building business, and what follows is a delicate ballet of the two trying to forge ahead. Life goes on, because it has to. Danny endures medical school in New York City, simply because Maeve wants to drain the educational trust their father set up for all the children so there's nothing left for Norma and Bright. And time and time again, the siblings find themselves sitting together in cars of various makes over the years, looking at the Dutch House from the street. The varying descriptions of the house, inside and outside, before and after the siblings' exile, are atmospheric. It looms over everything that goes on, and it's easy to see why Danny and Maeve have remained so deeply affected by it (though the trauma of their mother leaving likely contributed to this as well).

Patchett has considerable talent for unobtrusive writing; she doesn't call attention to what the reader should know, trusting that we'll pick up on certain cues. The years in the novel intertwine in such a way that the present often darts right back into the past and vice versa, and in less capable hands, it would be confusing. The story is so deeply absorbing, it hardly feels like years and years of the protagonists' lives are passing before your eyes. This is also the kind of novel you might put down many times after a certain line or two, thinking back to your own experiences and wondering how she could possibly know a piece of your life or your family so well.

A little over three months ago, my father died of colon cancer, leaving behind me, my mother and my sister, five years younger than me. While his chemotherapy sessions and many hospital stays felt like dress rehearsals for what we knew was coming, his death was still devastating, much like Patchett portrays it here. She illustrates how completely numbing it can be, too. In fact, through all the paperwork and legal clean-up duties I had to do after he died, reading The Dutch House was the first time I was able to sit down and think about what I had been through, what I felt, alongside Danny and Maeve dealing with the aftermath of their father's death. I'm grateful to Ann Patchett for the time and space to work out tangled tentacles of emotions that I might not have processed at length outside these 352 pages.

The Dutch House is an exceptional journey for those who might not have siblings, especially heartfelt for those who do, and gives me a little more courage to keep going. That's the greatest gift a book can give.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review is from the October 2, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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