Book Review: The Dutch House

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.

“The Dutch House” written by the award-winning author, Ann Patchett, tells the story about two siblings Maeve and Danny Conroy as they recount their lives living in the lavish Dutch House that their father purchased until they were banished from it by their own stepmother, Andrea Smith, whom the siblings suspected married their father only to have the Dutch House for herself.  

Written from Danny’s point of view, Patchett explores how Danny grew up not yearning for the love of his own mother, Elna Conroy, only acknowledging the fact that she left them when they were very young for reasons he could not comprehend.  Unlike Danny, Maeve’s painful longing their mother burdened her but somehow pushed her to become over-protective of her brother, acting more like a mother to him to which Danny was grateful for even though the path his sister wanted for him was not what he truly desired.  Agreeing to Maeve was Danny’s way of showing his appreciation for her tireless attention and love.  

But this is more a comparative narrative between two mothers: Danny and Maeve’s biological mother who left them without saying goodbye, and their stepmother who stripped them of their rights to their own house.  Who is to say which one is worse than the other when both women clearly left them to fend for themselves, to grow up without the guidance of a mother to tend to their needs, and for allowing themselves to feel unworthy of a mother’s love? I marvel at how Patchett presented the Dutch House as an object of desire for Andrea, but an object of disdain for Elna Conroy. Such desire and disdain ultimately ushered in the undoing of both Maeve’s and Danny’s lives.

Brilliant, touching and beautifully written, “The Dutch House” delivers an exceptional coming-of-age narrative of how two siblings longed for the opulent and majestic house that they have lived in as children plastered by the irony of its emptiness and bad memories.  I love how Patchett made Maeve and Danny visit the Dutch House, recounting their lives, the what-ifs, their hatred for their stepmother, and the countless ways they would have wanted to approach her, demanding their house back, while sitting in the car, eyeing the house. It is a moving tale of survival, sibling love, forgiveness, and what it truly means to move forward, leaving the past behind.  Just like any other piece of literary fiction, “The Dutch House” provides an insight into why people behave and act a certain way unknowingly setting off events that affect other people’s lives. How those whose lives were altered and broken were left with only hatred to hold on to and revenge to look forward to. But this novel somehow eased that burden. Patchett’s magnificent novel turns a somewhat ode to classic fairy tales about evil stepmothers and two siblings who have escaped a house made out of gingerbread from a wicked cannibalistic witch, into a work of fiction that proves things will turn out for the better in the end.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Ann Patchett

Genre: Literary Fiction / Historical Fiction

Length: 352 pages

Publisher: Berkley; Harper; 1st edition (September 24, 2019)

ISBN-10: 0062963678

ISBN-13: 978-0062963673

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