Published by Harper on September 24, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary
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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.
I came to The Dutch House exactly the way a literary person shouldn’t. I had heard the name off Ann Patchett, but because this review site tends towards coverage of Christian fiction, my free time to wander outside those confines is limited. At the beginning of 2020, I made a commitment to expand my horizons and specifically read and/or listen to novels that had either won or been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I ended up with the audiobook of The Dutch House because my library had it and because Tom Hanks reads it. Story aside, having Tom Hanks read you to sleep every night for a week is a pleasant experience, indeed.
The Dutch House is a sort of modern fairy tale that touches on the themes of greed, consumerism, and inequality. When Cyril Conroy hits it rich, he buys the eponymous Dutch house—so-called because the previous owners were Dutch immigrants who made (then lost) their fortune in the cigarette industry. While the house represents the height of wealth and luxury, it also begins the family’s undoing.
Cyril’s wife, Elna, despises the house both aesthetically and morally. After a while of contending with her husband’s new demeanor and status, as represented by the house, she simply leaves. It’s not until much later that her children, Maeve and Danny, discover her motivation for leaving and why she left.
Their father remarries Andrea, a woman in love with the house and the position it represents but certainly not Maeve and Danny and only maybe her husband. The two are young adults when Cyril dies and they are banished from the Dutch House for good. With only each other to lean on, they carry themselves through but still find themselves continually brought back to the memory and specter of the house.
The Dutch House is also a cautionary tale of obsessive nostalgia. In later chapters, as Maeve and Danny’s lives continue to center around the house they’ve not been in their entire adult lives, they must deal with how the memories of the house and how they’ve clung to it have held them back. Their mother left the house too easily, harming them in her wake. But will their struggle to cling to the house also end up harming them?
The story is told in the voice and mind of an adult Danny and is very introspective in his dealings with those around him. In that way, it’s a very relational novel as Danny finds himself shaped by the various figures in his life.
Although you can always pretty much guess where the story is going, Patchett tells it so well that you’re content to walk with her at her pace to go there together. The characters are believable, the setting unique and fully realized, The Dutch House is a modern-day fairy tale with insights, lessons, and amusements for everyone who reads (or listens!) to it.
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