The Dutch House

Ann Patchett


Review by Malcolm Forbes

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s 2001 Orange Prize-winning novel, starts with a bang. As a lavish party for the president of an electronics company gets underway, a band of terrorists storm the proceedings and take all the guests hostage. Less dramatic but equally shocking is the first chapter – one of the finest in fiction in recent years – of Patchett’s last novel Commonwealth (2016). Exchanging South America for Southern California and a birthday party for a christening party, Patchett brings hostess Beverly and gatecrasher Bert together in a drunken romantic clinch while jointly holding the baby.

Patchett impresses once again with the opener to her latest novel. Narrator Danny Conroy looks back to the 1960s and his childhood days in the Dutch House, his grand three-storey family home in small-town Pennsylvania. Although his mother has absconded to India and his father is preoccupied with his real-estate company, he receives enough tender loving care from his older sister Maeve and two loyal retainers: Sandy the housekeeper and Jocelyn the cook. But the dynamic is altered when Danny’s father introduces everyone to Andrea, the new woman in his life who seems more interested in his house than his children.

The chapter ends with Danny fast forwarding through the years to the first time he and Maeve sat parked outside the Dutch House looking in. On this occasion the place is brilliantly illuminated and they watch as Andrea mills around with one of her daughters. From here Patchett fades out, leaving our questions unanswered. Why has Andrea taken up residence? What change of fortune has led to Danny and Maeve’s banishment? Having hooked us, Patchett ensures we stay rapt throughout a well-crafted and emotionally engaging tale about love, forgiveness, belonging, and frayed and knotty family ties.

Danny continues his account of growing up, revealing that Andrea “lingered like a virus” after her first visit to the Dutch House and became a permanent fixture after marrying his father. When Danny is 15, disaster strikes. To say more would be to spoil all; suffice it to say that a wicked stepmother forces those she scorns to look for a new roof over their heads. Even the servants are turfed out. “You’re a set,” Andrea says, attempting to show method in her madness. “You can’t break up the set.”

And so Danny finds himself on the rocky road to adulthood without any of the comforts of home. After surviving boarding school he enters medical school at Columbia, only to realise later down the line that he is not cut out to be a doctor. There are further false starts and regrets in his relationship with fellow student Celeste. But once they settle down and start a family and he gets his business off the ground buying and selling Manhattan property, he acquires an overdue sense of stability. However, any peace of mind is shattered when his long-lost mother resurfaces and tries to explain, and atone for, her absence.

The Dutch House – Patchett’s eighth novel – is a compelling portrait of American domestic life. Danny’s narrative describes a familiar trajectory made up of births, deaths and marriages but it is routinely energised, and indeed electrified, by drama derived from unexpected upheavals, whether rifts and reunions or shock revelations and unwelcome home truths. There is expertly stoked tension in the last act when Danny’s mother proposes that she and her children revisit the Dutch House and reacquaint themselves with Andrea. After years spent returning to the place with Maeve to monitor it from the roadside (“like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns”) and listening to family members “taking apart the past with a flea comb”, Danny finally crosses the threshold and rediscovers his “lost and beloved country.”

Fiction is full of houses which cast a shadow and dictate the course of events. As Patchett’s novel takes shape and gathers pace we see how its characters come “undone by a house” – but also how they go about trying to put themselves back together.