When this book came up in conversation, I didn’t know what to make of it. Its title wasn’t appealing and it didn’t seem terribly exciting. But then I saw the name Ann Patchett on its cover. Ah! I was most certainly wrong: I would give this book a chance.
The house in question, a three story building unlike any of the homes in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, (on the outskirts of Philadelphia), in the year 1946, was built and lived in for decades by the Van Hoebeek dynasty, about which little is known, except that their coming to America from the Netherlands brought them the kind of prosperity that made it possible to build a sumptuous three story house, described in the novel as vaguely neo-classical with storefront windows. It is a wildly elaborate showcase house, stuffed with ornate furniture, its walls still covered with large, stern portraits of individual members of the Van Hoebeek family.
In time, tragedy—including bankruptcy—struck, and the Van Hoebeeks left Elkins Park for good, abandoning everything. EVERYTHING: the bedspreads in each room, closets full of clothes and cupboards full of dishes. On the vanity of the master bedroom is a hairbrush and comb set in which the strands of the previous mistress’ hair are still entangled. The abandoned library is filled with what are now unreadable books because they’re all written in Dutch.
Perhaps it’s fate (in this story, it certainly feels like it) that when Cyril Conroy—a young war veteran with a ruined knee and a bad heart—leaves the military base where he and his young bride, Elna, have lived since their wedding, it is the Dutch House that he finds and buys. To him, it’s the most beautiful house in the world, and the place from which he will launch his prosperous career developing and managing rental properties, and raise a family.
The Dutch House does not follow a natural timeline. Instead, it loops forward and back in time, and the reader is able to catch glimpses of the outcomes of many of the choices made by the characters. So, while Cyril’s optimism and ambition make sense, the reader knows early on that despite the fact that he and Elna have two young children, Maeve and Danny, born 7 years apart, Cyril’s choice of the Dutch House is disastrous.
One wonders if the house is cursed, because from the very beginning, it’s a bad fit for the Conroy family. For Cyril, climbing up to the third floor to check out the destruction caused by raccoons who have boldly set up residence under the collapsing roof is pure martyrdom, every step upward torturing his bad knee.
But Cyril’s worse miscalculation is the effect of the house on Elna:
“He’d bought the most beautiful house in Pennsylvania and his wife was looking at him like he’d shot her.”
I found Elna to be the most inscrutable character of Patchett’s novel. A painful paradox.
Tall, thin and raven-haired, I imagined her as a woman who saw herself as a mid-twentieth century Mother Teresa; someone placed on earth to serve, because by the time Maeve is of school age, and Danny just a toddler, Elna’s days are spent going out into Philadelphia’s poorer areas to help the disadvantaged—anywhere and everywhere there is poverty and need. Doing so, she is, of course, abandoning her husband and her very young children. One day, she turns her back on the Dutch House for good, leaving Maeve and Danny in the care of the two kind sisters, Jocelyn and Sandy, hired by Cyril to do the cooking and provide the child care.
Elna’s flight is the event that hovers over every aspect of Patchett’s story. It is the novel’s watershed moment. Just as the Vann Hoebeeks abandoned the house, so does Elna, along with everyone she was thought to love. The rest of the novel—which is most of it—is the telling of the myriad impacts of this single decision.
It’s no coincidence that just around this time, Maeve is diagnosed with (juvenile) diabetes, an illness that casts a shadow over the rest of her life. As she grows into adolescence and adulthood, Maeve is described as tall, thin, and dark-haired—like her mother; while Danny, also tall, is the spitting image of his father, and of similar temperament and interests.
But Maeve not only looks like Elna, she is drawn, by circumstance, to step in to do the mothering that her own mother eschewed, first and always for Danny. Eventually though, Cyril marries a second time. Her name is Andrea, and she brings with her to the Dutch House two little girls: Norma and Bright. Clearly uninterested in Cyril’s children, Andrea gives Maeve’s room to Norma, without a second thought. In spite of this, Maeve is unfailingly kind to the two young siblings.
Patchett’s choice to give to Danny the role of narrator of The Dutch House is important, and often frustrating. In a novel that spans 50 years (we follow Maeve and Danny’s lives through to middle-age), Danny is a limited observer: first, because he is still very young—a teenager—when Andrea summarily throws him and Maeve out of the house for good; and also because he is so like his father—pragmatic, dispassionate, rather introverted and very bright (almost as bright as his big sister). What he does communicate beautifully to the reader is his devotion to Maeve—his fealty, really, to the sister who has been sibling, friend and mother to him.
It’s difficult to say too much more about The Dutch House without spoiling some of its plot twists and turns. Still, there is a moment late in the novel when brother and big sister are arguing over how each has chosen to react to a dramatic turn of events, which Danny retells:
““For the record, I’m sick of misery,” [Maeve] said, then she turned and went back inside, leaving me stand in the swirl of leaves and think about what I owed her. By any calculation, it was everything.”
My mind goes back to a scene that recurs in the novel and sits heavily on my heart. It’s the fact that Maeve and Danny, all through the years after their expulsion from the Dutch House, return to it regularly, just the two of them, parked within view of it and just sit there, observing the house, and talking about their past there. It is their private ritual.
I think it’s the ritual of two motherless children.