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Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (4/5)

11 Feb

I’d planned to go hear Ann Patchett speak with a good friend of mine but I got the date wrong and in the end, she couldn’t make it. I felt terrible and bought us both signed copies so we could do a Buddy Read. We both loved the setup and hope to do it again. Hopefully, we can find a book we enjoy as much as we both liked The Dutch House. That might be a tall order.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Other books by Patchett reviewed on this blog:
Commonwealth (and book club reflection)
Truth and Beauty
Bel Canto

Summary from Goodreads:

At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.

The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.

Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives, they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.

I find it hard to put my thumb on what it is about Patchett’s storytelling that’s so wonderful. Part of it is a long, slow burn with a characterization that drives you crazy. Danny and Maeve aren’t so special. Their story is unique but not so outlandish that it seems like an adventure. They’re very real people and their accomplishments are very believable and attainable. Their losses are relatable and realistic. You almost feel like it could happen to you but it’s just far enough away that you know it won’t. It’s a story you get easily swept away in and can’t help but love.

I feel like Maeve and Danny could easily live down the street. They were well developed and you wanted to believe you could meet them. Even the side characters were wonderful. Celeste felt like people I knew. Andrea was one of the best villains I’ve yet encountered. Fluffy was the babysitter you loved and hated growing up. Patchett’s ability to create characters is part of her gift and I really love reading about the people she’s invented.

Maeve was my favorite character and since she’s the main character, it seems like a cheap pick. Danny tells the story, but it always felt like it was about Maeve. I’d forget Danny’s name from time to time. He was the lens through which we see Maeve and her place in the world. Their stories are linked but Maeve is the mastermind. She’s the dominant character and the one who is backing Danny up along the way, no matter what. She pushes him through med school and then supports his real estate business. She acts like a side character, though. She’s smart but never has great ambitions. She is humble and is alone for a lot of her life. She’s not showy or flashy in any way and I think that’s what I liked about her so much.

There wasn’t a lot I could say I had experienced in this book, but the characters were so well drawn that I felt like I knew Maeve and Danny. Their reactions and decisions were so logical and sensical that I would have made them myself and I loved seeing the book play out in a way I could relate to so well.

Ann Patchett
Personal photo taken October 14, 2020 Ann Arbor, MI

Danny’s schooling was my favorite part of the book. I loved how Danny became a doctor just to spite Andrea. I thought Maeve was really smart in how she sent Danny to boarding school and then I laughed when he went to med school and then told Maeve he didn’t want to be a doctor. Of course, she didn’t care if he became a doctor! She just wanted to get back at Andrea. The anger the siblings had at their step-mother was founded yet deeper than I could have anticipated. It was fun to watch.

Spoiler alert so skip to the next paragraph to miss them. I really disliked it when their mother came back. I thought I’d be excited to see what kind of woman she was and where she’d been for so long. I thought I’d react like Maeve. I reacted like Danny. I was mad at her for leaving and for being so kind to everyone else when she failed to be kind to her own children. I never grew to like her.

Family is a tricky thing. As much as their father was their blood family, he was very removed from Danny and Maeve growing up and seemed almost absent from their lives. The times he spends with Danny collecting the rents seemed like the most interaction the two had. In many ways, Sandy and Jocelyn are more parental to Maeve than anyone else and Maeve is Danny’s primary parent. Maeve’s ability to be a parent seems to always be in question. She lives far from Danny and the two have a very close bond. Through Celeste, we see how unusual this bond is and how much it bothers her. It seems like Danny didn’t have much of a parent to speak of but he turns out to be a pretty good dad in the end. Maybe Maeve gave him a better blueprint than I give her credit for.

Writer’s Takeaway: Character development cannot be neglected. Even more so, giving a character his or her own personality and not holding that back. Fluffy is a great example of this. She is a unique character throughout the novel. Andrea is a consistent villain as well. Each of the characters was unique and I think that’s something I struggle with in my books and hope to develop better.

An overall wonderful book and one I’m glad I read. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1960-1979 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – book review | Wishfully Reading