Tag Archives: family saga

Review: The Dutch House

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.

thedutchhouseIn 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

Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Back to reviews with another Women’s Prize longlist title! This time we’re looking at Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had, one of the largest books on the list at over 500 pages. Fortunately, I had a good time reading it, though I can’t say it had much else going for it.

themostfunweeverhadIn the novel, four adult sisters are trying to find their way in the world, both guided and hindered by what they see as their parents’ epic romance, an impressive love story none of the girls is confident about finding for herself. A secret son, concealed by two of the sisters and given for adoption at birth, suddenly reenters their lives fifteen years later, testing the bounds of the familial relationships and finally showing the sisters that there may be more to a “good” and “successful” life than keeping up appearances.

” ‘There’s four of you?’ he asked. ‘What’s that like?’ / ‘It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.’ “

There are quite a few books on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist that look at family, parenthood, and marriage, but The Most Fun We Ever Had stands out as the ultimate family saga. Its page count allows Lombardo to examine- in excruciating detail- the minutiae of day-to-day interactions, a lifetime of decisions and assumptions, and each sibling and parent relationship that is one thread in the greater web of this family. I found the dynamics between characters highly entertaining and enjoyed the writing, but even so I think Lombardo could’ve shaved off two hundred pages without losing anything crucial.

The book opens on one of the daughters’ weddings, from their mother’s perspective. From this glimpse alone the reader can see that there is plenty of interest going on beneath the surface of this happy family, though we soon come to learn that their mother doesn’t know half of it. From here, the narration jumps ahead sixteen years to follow a year’s worth of family drama, divided into seasonal sections. Though this year is presented chronologically, the book also delivers numerous flashbacks that showcase virtually every significant moment in each character’s life, from the parents’ origin story, through their four daughters’ childhoods, and into choices each make as adults, all leading up to this one eventful year. Across all of these moments, The Most Fun We Ever Had demonstrates the duality of affection and pain in familial relationships, showing that what holds people together can also drive them apart, and that it is after all easiest to hurt the ones we love.

“She was just trying to do the right thing, but that wasn’t so easy, because everyone in her life had a different conception of what the right thing was, and she herself was caught somewhere in the middle.”

Thematically, alongside the complexities of parent and sibling relationships, this story looks at wealth and privilege from a number of angles. The adopted boy has, by a bad stroke of luck, spent most of his life in the foster care system, and his sudden need for care provides a rude awakening for the sisters who’ve grown up with two loving parents in a big house with adequate income. A family of six subsisting on one doctor’s salary didn’t exactly equate to the lap of luxury for the four girls while growing up (which isn’t to say they wanted for anything), but most of them were able to improve their circumstances even further as they reached adulthood- their own children are well-situated indeed. In comparison, there is one daughter who survives paycheck to paycheck in a sad apartment with one fork to her name. This woman plays such scant role in the plot that she seems present primarily to balance the scales of the family’s wealth. But despite the thorough setup, the book’s commentary barely dips below the surface of the expected.

In truth, I don’t think there’s anything at all to learn here. These are such specific characters, in such a specific situation, that it’s difficult to apply much of their experience to life beyond the novel. It’s a love story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a generational story, and yet despite everything the book encompasses, its primary purpose seems to be entertainment. Perhaps the main message here is something like, “love is messy,” or “there’s more to every relationship than meets the eye,” but there’s nothing groundbreaking or life-altering to be gleaned from such platitudes. Unless the takeaway is that we shouldn’t present our children with the model of a solid marriage for fear of setting the bar too high, there’s little substance to take back to the real world after closing the back cover. At its core, The Most Fun We Ever Had isn’t much more than an entertaining drama about four sisters and their futile competition to prove themselves most worthy of their picture-perfect parents- and each other. The ruthless competitiveness between these sisters is the driving force of the novel.

On that note, if you’re looking for likable characters, this probably isn’t the book for you. Though each is sympathetic and suffering in their own way, they do all make poor choices, sometimes for bad reasons. There is certainly some redemptive growth, but it’s a long journey getting there. I particularly enjoyed their contrariness, but it won’t be the right fit for everyone.

“But this was the thing: sometimes being a sister meant knowing the right thing to do and still not doing it because winning was more important. Victory was a critical part of sisterhood, she’d always thought.”

I do think Lombardo’s a good writer- I loved seeing how well she fleshed out all of these characters, how the four very different sisters’ personalities tracked across decades of their lives and how they all interacted with each other. I don’t have a sister, myself. I have two brothers, but we’re not close. Perhaps someone with stronger sibling ties might get more out of this one than I did, or find more to identify with at least. Instead, I found this story engrossing and fun, but surprisingly shallow.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a good time with this book, I really did. But I expect more from the Women’s Prize than a simple good time, and I didn’t find any standout depth or technical skill here. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s a straightforward story that neglects to go the extra mile. I might be interested in picking up more of Lombardo’s work someday, but I won’t mind if this one doesn’t make the shortlist.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Pachinko

I love long, character-driven, cultural books, but I know I tend to put off reading them. I want 2019 to be a year for better habits though, so I finally picked up the much-recommended historical fiction novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee… and it absolutely lived up to the hype.

pachinkoAbout the book: Sunja is the only daughter of a hard-working Korean couple who cherish her. But when she discovers she is pregnant and that the father is already married, she leaves her family and their hopes for her behind to move to Japan with an ailing minister in an effort to spare her family from disgrace. Through war and prejudice, she discovers how difficult life can be for Koreans in Japan, and also how difficult it will always be for her to avoid the influential man who impregnated her. Her choices will affect every member of her family in her own generation and beyond.

“Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.”

I didn’t know that Pachinko was a Japanese gambling game before reading this book. I didn’t remember that Japan annexed Korea in 1910 or that Korea split at the end of WWII- my memory for details (like dates) is vague at best. Honestly, I didn’t even remember this book’s synopsis when I picked up the novel earlier this month, which meant I was in for a lot of eye-opening surprises.

This novel covers a lot of ground, spanning from 1910 to 1989, with chapters set in Korea, Japan, and America. The historical background is filtered through the experiences of this fictional family- making this a story about people, community, and culture rather than a moralizing history lesson. The significance of events are made plain through the consequences these characters face, seemingly through little or no fault of their own. The history is important, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to supplement Pachinko with a little outside reading (or at least Googling) to brush up your knowledge, but Min Jin Lee has penned an ambitious emotional saga here, not a persuasive essay. She emphasizes the complexities of the relationships between countries, between immigrants, and between family members. She leaves the reader to decide what to do with it all in the end.

Balance is crucial in a slow-paced, 500+ page novel, and fortunately, each of the perspectives is as engaging as the next. Sunja remains the primary character throughout, but I found her parents, her lover, her husband and his family, her children and their families all as interesting to follow. Lee knows exactly how to keep the reader’s attention from start to finish, doling out details that make each character unique and compelling. Pachinko requires some patience, but it never bores.

The story as a whole focuses mainly on the challenges and prejudices that Koreans have faced in Japan over the last century. Sunja’s children and grandchildren were born in Japan, and yet they must carry alien registration cards, and can be deported at any time. Many jobs and careers remain closed to them. Horrendous comments are left in the children’s school yearbooks.

“He believed he could enjoy going to school if he were a regular person and not a Korean. He couldn’t say this to his father or to anyone else, because it was certain he’d never be a regular Japanese.”

Heart-rending moments pepper the book. Major blows are placed in the middles of chapters where they feel like just another hurt to overcome; Lee does not capitalize on shock value, which makes the various deaths and disappointments that much heavier- a weight that these characters will never be rid of. There are victories for the family as well, but the ceaseless hard work rewarded by suffering is present in abundance. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” Sunja’s mother Yunjin says, and the others echo in agreement. There is very little for me to relate to personally in this book, and yet I cared about every one of these characters and their hardships. I felt that a crucial piece of world history had been missing in my education that I was glad to have found in Pachinko.

“This city is made of wood and paper. It’ll take no more than a match for it to incinerate. Imagine what will happen with an American bomb.”

The game Pachinko is looked at with the same disdain as many Koreans are by the majority of the Japanese in this novel. Those who play it, those who work in the Pachinko parlors, and those who have amassed fortunes in the industry are frowned upon by society at large. Many believe the Pachinko bosses to be crooked mobsters, each and every one. But the game also becomes a source of hope and a symbol for Sunja and her family. They make the best of what they’ve got, even when they know the odds are stacked against them.

“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.” 

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I finished this book halfway through the month, with plans for more great reading before the end of February, but I knew almost as soon as I started that this would be my favorite read of the month. It’s probably going to be one of my favorite books of the entire year, although I know it’s still early. Pachinko is absolutely beautiful and evocative, and worth the time it takes to read. I haven’t enjoyed historical fiction this much in so long, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

The Literary Elephant