SPOILER: This review discusses elements of the plot that might be considered suprises.
This book has received so many good reviews and been on so many ‘Top Reads of 2019’ lists that I just had to check it out for myself. The fact that it has one of the most beautiful covers of any recent publication also meant that I was compelled to reach for it. It’s not something that I normally do (I am a quite particular reader) but sometimes you have to go with the flow book wise.
The Dutch House is, at its heart, a story about the lives of Maeve and Danny Conroy, a brother and sister, and takes place over the course of fifty years of their lives. It is told from Danny’s perspective – it is his voice we hear as he recalls his life from childhood through to adulthood, including medical school, marriage and children. The most important person in his life is his sister Maeve who acts as his mother due to the absence of his actual mother, Elna, who walked out on her family when he was just three years old. This act would reverberate throughout his entire life in every way, not least of which is his father’s eventual remarriage to Andrea who would, after his father’s death, exile both Danny and Maeve from their childhood home.
And it is to this home that the title of the book refers – The Dutch House, a large, ornate and very imposing residence. Elna hated it and left not only her husband and children, but the house as well. It was not her choice of a place to live, her husband having bought it as a surprise to her. Andrea loved it and stayed till her death, many years after the schism, when her mind had gone.
I really enjoyed this book. I like the voice and style that the author, Ann Patchett, uses to tell the tale of Danny and Maeve. I appreciate its simplicity and directness which accurately represents the personalities of the two protagonists. It is neither overwrought or overdone emotionally even though the Conroy children experience some very traumatic events, things that rip and tear at their lives. This is not to say that there is a total lack of introspection or self examination. There are times when Danny stops and thinks on things that have happened and the fact that this is not present on every single page makes it all the more important and affecting when it does.
It is so interesting to see how these characters, and the others that appear including Celeste, Danny’s eventual wife, Sandy and Jocelyn, the Conroy family cook and housekeeper and Cyril their father, react to all that happens in the aftermath of Elna leaving. While this event happened ‘off screen’ many years ago in the lives of the Conroy family, it is the one happening that everything else is connected to and can be traced back to. Danny experiences all of this in a vastly different way from everyone else as he was very young when his mother fled so he never really knew her in any intimate way. Maeve is older and so carries first hand memories of her as do the housekeepers and of course his father. Danny knows only what he has been told and as a result doesn’t have any affection for a woman that many label a saint. I like the way that the author uses this to almost make Danny an emotional outcast.
I also like the fact the the book is split into three parts, seemingly to represent the three stages or era’s of Danny’s life – before exile (childhood), after exile (college and adulthood) and Maeve’s illness / Elna’s return (later adulthood). Where each of the parts ends and the next starts feels like a good moment for the reader to take a breather and think back on what has come before. I liked being given that opportunity rather than continuously moving forward with no time for reflection.
But there are some things that, for me, prevented it from being a great book.
I felt that the last third was rushed which felt a little odd. The author had taken her time over the first two thirds of the book, crafting the moments and allowing them to grow and play out but this just didn’t feel like the case for the rest of it which was a shame as there were any important events that took place – Maeve gets very sick and his mother Elna returns. To be fair they are given a bit of space within the book but these events are so momentous in Danny’s life that I thought they perhaps warranted more. It could be argued that it’s just a reflection of Danny’s character and how he processes things – fair enough. But we hardly see any of the aftermath of his divorce or more importantly Maeve’s death. I would have welcomed another 20 to 30 pages (or more) to see how he coped with the loss of the single most important person in his life. She had been everything to him and while I didn’t want wailing and histrionics as that wouldn’t have been in keeping with his character, I wanted to know how Danny felt.
Now this may be a controversial thing to say but I also didn’t like it overly much when Elna, their mother, returned to the story, eventually staying to the end. I actually liked the idea of her being this abstract absent figure, always there but not there, affecting and directing events but at an arm’s reach away. I would have preferred the open endedness of wondering if she was still out there, of Danny and Maeve asking themselves if she was alive or dead and what had happened to her. Did she regret her actions all those years ago? That just would have felt, for me at least, more in keeping with the tone of the story.
And Danny’s daughter May becoming a movie star and taking eventual possession of the Dutch House after Andrea’s death felt very incongruous with the story as it had come before. It even felt, dare I say it, a little silly and I wasn’t a fan of this plot strand. Again I would have preferred something different … perhaps the Dutch House should have been abandoned when the only person that loved it died, slowly decaying away, a relic of a now fast receding past.
Despite these things however I found this work very thought provoking, engrossing and almost haunting. On more than one occasion I had to put the book down as I pondered events, wondering how I would react to things said or done, were the characters being fair to themselves or each other, how did I feel? Any book that can create a relationship between the reader, the characters and the story taking place is successful and this book accomplishes that very well.
The Dutch House is well worth the read and was a great start to 2020!
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)