I’ve been meaning to read some Ann Patchett for a while, so seeing her latest novel, The Dutch House, on the Women’s Prize longlist this year was the final nudge I needed to pick up some of her work. While I’m glad I finally gave it a chance, I’m hoping I’ll fare better in the future with some of Patchett’s other titles, because this one didn’t quite hit the mark.
In the novel, Danny and his older sister Maeve spend most of their childhood in the Dutch House, an excessively fancy home that their father loved and their mother hated. When their mother leaves for the last time and a selfish stepmother enters their lives in her place, it is only a matter of time before Danny and Maeve lose the house, their rich lifestyle, and all semblance of family beyond each other. They spend the rest of their lives trying to pick up the pieces, returning frequently to sit in a parked car outside of the Dutch House to ruminate on all they’ve lost.
“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside. “
The Dutch House begins as a beautifully written, fairy tale-esque account of strangely fortunate and unfortunate children in the 1960’s-70’s. They are well off in some ways, with cooks and housekeepers to make them feel at home in their ridiculously extravagant house. In other ways, they suffer- the missing mother, the cold stepmother, the father who can’t be bothered to express affection or emotion or spend any time with them. It is interesting to see how the house becomes a symbol even while they are living in it for everything that they have and could have had, and at the same time serves as a substitute for the things they are missing. But when Danny is fifteen and Maeve twenty-two, their eviction from the house changes the shape of the story, and the book becomes increasingly frustrating.
What starts as a tale of lonely children in a beautiful house turns into an adult quest of grudges and revenge, in which every character seems frozen in a state of childish emotion, committed to spending decades reacting to a single perceived slight. Instead of unfolding depth and meaning from the monumental event of these characters’ lives, the novel narrows further, spinning in circles and buckling down to defend simplistic characterization that hardly makes sense. There is no backstory or nuance utilized to explain the stepmother’s cruelty toward her husband’s children. The mother is exonerated for abandoning her family with the explanation that she wanted to help the less fortunate. Danny and Maeve, instead of building lives of their own and adding further chapters to their own stories, make their choices based on how best to get back at the woman who hurt them, even though these choices perpetuate their unhappiness- for example, Danny spends years struggling through medical school to use up as much as he can of an educational trust that would benefit his stepsisters despite having no interest or intent in becoming a practicing doctor.
“Norma said that childhood wasn’t something she could imagine inflicting on another person, especially not a person she loved. I imagined pediatric oncology only reinforced her position.”
My least favorite aspect of the book however, is Danny’s narration. Not the prose style in which his story is told, which I actually quite liked, but the simple placement of Danny at the novel’s center. In a story packed with women who must all have more knowledgeable and interesting points of view regarding the Dutch House, we are instead given an oblivious man who seems to expect a pat on the back for realizing years later how difficult a time the women in his life have had while also taking care of him.
Perhaps the point of this maneuver is to demonstrate a disparity in expectations placed upon men and women- Danny free to follow an expensive education to its conclusion and then essentially throw it away (and in doing so providing more unpaid work for his sister), while Maeve spends her entire life sans mother taking care of her brother in lieu of chasing her own dreams (like furthering her own education). Danny also has the Dutch House’s servants and eventually his wife bolstering him up while he continues to focus on himself. But if Patchett is trying to capitalize on the ease of opportunity for men at the cost of stifled women, wouldn’t any of the women involved in the story be able to convey to the reader Danny’s spoiled self-interest, while also providing a more engaging and direct narrative? It is, after all, Maeve rather than Danny who fixates on the Dutch House; Danny’s relative uselessness and the symbolism of the Dutch House do not seem to be making the same point, which further muddies the water of what this book is trying to accomplish.
The novel also seems intent on pointing out that men can get away with abandoning their children much more easily than women, but again, is Maeve not best situated to make this point, as she is the one who actually remembers their mother and takes on responsibility for her brother’s upbringing from a young age? And if this imbalance of what is expected from mothers vs fathers is the Point, the fact that neither Danny nor Maeve, after acknowledging it, can quite forgive their mother in the end while also lauding their father for loving them more than they knew at the time seems to negate this argument. Ultimately, I think Patchett was either trying to do too much or too little with the novel’s narration and purpose, failing to land either effectively. In my opinion, choosing a different narrator (Maeve seems the obvious choice) might have lent the story an entirely different- and more successful- effect.
” ‘I look at Kevin and May and I think, who would do that to them? What kind of person leaves their kids?’ […] ‘Men!’ Maeve said, nearly shouting. ‘Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.’ “
This is turning into a very negative review, and I only have the smallest of positive to notes to end it on (which is making me rethink my rating, actually). While I have nothing but complaints for the characterization and technical choices of storytelling in The Dutch House, I did love the tragic/elegant aura of the house itself, and the sumptuous prose. Despite finding much of the content frustrating, I did appreciate Patchett’s writing style and occasional moments of insight. I think there was a brilliant and beautiful novel in here somewhere, and up to about the halfway point I had a good time reading it.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. A low 3, and not a book I’m hoping to see on the shortlist later this month. But because I liked Patchett’s writing, I am still hopeful that this simply wasn’t the right book of hers for me, and am curious to try more of her work. I’d really like to give Bel Canto a go before the vote for the Women’s Prize winner of winners this fall.
The Literary Elephant