The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a tender, earnest, sweeping family saga – my favourite kind of Ann Patchett novel. Published in 2019 and short listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Patchett’s latest novel has received a lot of well deserved attention.
What’s it about?
Danny and Maeve Conroy are brother and sister. They grow up together in The Dutch House, an elegant and elaborate mansion of a place which enchants them both for the rest of their lives. When they are very small, their mother leaves without a trace. Raised by their withdrawn, unapproachable father and cruel stepmother, Danny and Maeve are everything to each other. The novel follows their life from those early childhood memories, through difficult adolescence into adulthood. It’s a dark fairy-tale like narrative that had me hooked from the very start.
Everyone who enters the Dutch House forms a deep, almost mystical fascination with the place, including the reader. For Danny and Maeve, the house holds more than just their memories – it holds unanswered questions and mysteries about their lives that may never be truly reconciled.
This is the ultimate character-driven novel, focusing almost solely on their inner thoughts and stilted encounters. The relationships are so well developed – moments of betrayal, misunderstanding, love and forgiveness are subtly and slowly exposed throughout the pages of the novel, leaving just enough unsaid to keep readers wondering. Patchett flashes back in time to shed light on formative memories that shape the rest of the novel, taking the reader’s mind seamlessly from decade to decade and back again. Our fixation on the past and craving for a good backstory is essential to this book.
For me, the most enthralling dynamics are between the original four Conroys, living in the Dutch House: Danny, Maeve and their parents, Elna and Cyril. A marriage that dissolved, a mother who left, a sister who became a mother-figure and a father who remarried and rejected his children – it’s remarkable that all of their individual and collective struggles have room to grow and breathe in this relatively short novel.
I love how this book unfolds gradually. Readers do get answers, but we’re made to wait for them. We learn about why Elna left and where she went, we start to understand Cyril’s inability to connect with his children and we begin to see why Maeve is infatuated with the Dutch House. But Patchett won’t spell it out or show it all up front – it’s a slow process, and absolutely worth the wait.
Disjointed families, unspoken history, sibling relationships and misaligned memories – this novel is packed with complicated, messy and heartbreaking moments that felt so absorbing I could almost have been watching it all unfold right in front of me. For a book that spans decades, I read it as though on fast-forward, desperate to understand more and more about the house and the broken souls who passed through it.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a rich, layered, true-to-life tale of familial love and heartbreak – this book reminded me why I adore Patchett and it has to be one to the best novels I’ve read this year.
Here are some other reviews to check out:
Lit Hub – an interview with Ann Patchett