Review | The Dutch House : by Ann Patchett

Patchett delivers a quietly suspenseful drama of family and ambition, by creating a modern dark fairy tale about two smart people who are bound by a past they cannot overcome. She transports the Conroy siblings, Maeve and Danny, through five decades replete with a birth mother, Elna, who walks away from her young children to help the less fortunate, an unloving stepmother, Andrea, two favored step sisters, Norma and Beatrice (called Bright), a father, Cyril, who dies too soon and a house with a past of its own.

The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park, Jenkintown, Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred to the house’s occupants, the VanHoebeeks. After making a fortune in the wholesale distribution of cigarettes, the family commissioned the building of the stately home, and lived and entertained there from 1922 until the end of the Second World War. During the period prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the VanHoebeeks lived a lavish lifestyle in sync with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the age of “The Great Gatsby”.

After serving in the Second World War, Cyril Conroy returns to Philadelphia, marries and makes a single investment in the purchase of ten acres in Horsham, Pennsylvania. The resale of this property to the United States Navy for a new base is the beginning of the Conroy real estate empire. Cyril’s success propels the family from poverty to wealth. Cyril secretly purchases the Dutch House and all of its contents as a surprise for his wife, Elna. She hates the house and the lifestyle it exemplifies and here begins the undoing of everyone Cryil loves.

The Conroy family grows, as children arrive, first Maeve and then Danny. By the time Danny is four years old, their mother, Elna, leaves and simply vanishes from their lives. A few years pass and Cyril marries Andrea. Along with Andrea come her two young daughters. She is no mother to Maeve and Danny, and she is more married to the house and its lifestyle then to Cyril. Consequently, Maeve and Danny’s bond to each other grows stronger and stronger.

In Danny’s words,

“Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf, but no one did the same for her.”

The untimely death of Cyril, in 1963, creates a new crisis for Danny and Maeve. There is no will, so Andrea inherits everything. There is only a trust set aside for Danny’s education. Andrea demands the removal of Maeve and Danny from the Dutch House. Maeve is well employed by Mr. Otterson, “The Willy Wonka of Produce”, (Patchett’s wit provides a light side), and Danny attends Choate, Columbia and medical school while really wanting to get involved New York City real estate. Danny draws the correlation between medical school and real estate.

Both teach how to be decisive:

identify the problem – weigh the options – act – all at the same time

Danny moves forward. He marries and starts a family in New York City. However, Celeste, his wife, is jealous of the relationship of sibling love and sacrifice between Maeve and Danny. The unbreakable bond of memories shared echoes of Alice McDermott. A particularly fantastical memory occurs for both Maeve and Danny when Danny’s daughter, May, performs as one mouse in the army of mice in the New York City Ballet production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”. In the theater, sitting a half dozen seats apart, both siblings are transported from Herr Dosselmeier’s parlor to the parlor of the Dutch House.

American Repertory Ballet –

This book digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness. Narrated by Danny , it is the story of a relationship between an indulged brother and his ever protective sister. All the characters are fully developed, as Patchett allows us to know them and to make emotional connections. It is a revelation of what people acquire, keep, lose or give away and what they leave behind.

Written in three sequential parts, Patchett culminates the story of Maeve and Danny in 1993. Relationships evolve – some resolve, some terminate.

Danny asks Maeve, “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” Another question might be, “How do you move past such a childhood?” These questions leave a haunting trail.

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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