- What: The Dutch House
- Who: Ann Patchett
- Pages: 337, hard cover
- Genres: Historical fiction and family drama
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
Some writers are so subtle in their greatness that it can be tough to describe why you like their writing and novels so much. After I read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth three years ago, I knew it was my favorite book, but I couldn’t initially pinpoint why. And isn’t that a sign of a great writer? We want their abilities to work so well together that you can’t separate them piece by piece. We want them to create a conglomeration of greatness and to close the book saying, “Ahh now that’s a good one.”
Ann Patchett has done that again with her latest novel, The Dutch House.
This one didn’t take long for me to finish reading because I enjoyed it so much — just like Commonwealth. The difference between this one and the first book she gifted to me? This time I analyzed the crap out of her writing, so I can tell you — my faithful fans — why I love Patchett’s novels so much. Trust me: You’ll want to read the total fangirling that’s about to hit this page.
Danny Conroy’s older sister, Maeve, is his best friend. Always has been and always will be. Wouldn’t you also be best friends with the one person with whom you experienced death, pain, trauma, and unconditional love?
Danny and Maeve grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs in their father’s most important and meaningful investment: the Dutch House, a lovely mansion with extraordinary landscapes and details that can’t be found anywhere miles and miles near the house. It’s the place where Danny and Maeve spent their childhoods and were later exiled from. The memories of this place will haunt them for their entire lives.
Because even though Danny and Maeve have wonderful memories from their time at the Dutch House, they also have painful ones — of their mother’s abandonment, their father’s neglect and tendency to pick a favorite, and their witch of a stepmother who took away from them their most prized possession.
Told from Danny’s point of view, the story follows the siblings from childhood in the 1940s to the middle of their lives. As school, ambitions, doubts, marriage, and children come along, Danny and Maeve continue to feel most at ease and most themselves with each other; they are never fully able to open up or make sacrifices for anyone else. That is at least until ghosts from their past threaten the impossible bond the two have shared over the years.
What. A. Treat.
And a treat given by Ann Patchett nonetheless.
“Habit is a funny thing. You might think you understand it, but you can never exactly see what it looks like when you’re doing it.” — The Dutch House
The first thing you should know about Patchett is that she is the queen of characterization. Never have I read a writer who so easily creates characters with such specific details and quirks that are illustrated in every action and everything they say. Her language inhabits the bodies of these characters and then effortlessly switches feelings, moods, and personalities from one to the next — even in the same dialogue or scene so that each character is distinctly his or her own every time you interact with them.
Maeve, for instance, has sass, crass, smarts, and the most giving spirit. In contrast, Danny has a more lackadaisical nature that struggles to forgive yet aims to not rock the boat. These distinct persons always stand out and compliment each other without ever blending and without feeling forced. Understated distinctions are the core of characterization, and Patchett has mastered them.
“The job of a novel like The Dutch House is to sweep you along and make you care about the characters, no matter who they are or what their circumstances, and Patchett has done that job.” writes Martha Southgate in her New York Times review.
To me, that’s only possible if the writer gives us true characters from start to finish. Enter: Ann Patchett.
“Disappointment comes from expectation.” — The Dutch House
In The Dutch House, the cast moves along free-flowing narratives that don’t immediately shock until suddenly they are interrupted by blunt revelations. If you look closely though, you’ll notice these had previously been insinuated through very subtle tones of plot changes — easing your way to the end with short bursts of epiphanies.
In one chapter, Danny and Maeve question whether someone in their lives has remarried, alluding to this woman being widowed at some point in recent history. If death had occurred, readers were not privy to it. In the next chapter, that very death Danny and Maeve hinted at is dropped like a bomb in one line with little surrounding fanfare. It’s an interesting structure that keeps you on your toes and compels you to keep reading.
This technique can only be achieved through a mastered combination of characterization, plot twists, and random yet thoroughly thought-out timelines. Similarly to her 2016 novel, The Dutch House changes eras and settings every chapter and even within them. The house itself and the sibling’s relationship are the only mainstays throughout the novel. If not done correctly, this writer’s choice can confuse and distract.
Patchett is too much of a veteran for that. Because she never loses sight of Danny and Maeve, their relationship, and how it affects where they’re going in life, as a reader, you can easily flip through one decade to the next and back again without ever feeling lost. This delivers different parts of a full story without the usual foreboding that comes from chronology.
“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” — The Dutch House
The premise and components The Dutch House may sound like her previous work, but I assure you Patchett’s latest is a stellar novel all on its own. Sure, it tackles similar themes while utilizing similar techniques. Patchett’s storylines have so much intrigue, relatability, and compassion — not to mention how talented she is — that her stories feel like a fresh pick every single time.