I can still remember my first diary. It was blue with a little lock and key, inside it contained my secret thoughts and youthful dreams. Nowadays, I journal spilling my thoughts onto paper in order to keep the cobwebs of my mind clear. Writing is therapeutic but writing something for someone else to read is an exercise of the imagination. Reading good literature stimulates my mind and inspires me to write, luring me out of the comfort zone of staying in my head.
Over the holiday we had the pleasure of spending time with our son and daughter-in-law. As is common in these rich visits, the topic of art and creativity came up. One of our conversations centered on the medium of writing where I found myself waxing eloquent on what I think makes for a good book.
Characterization is pivotal. In The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, Danny recounts the story of his life from his early memories to the present. The story seamlessly moves the reader back and forth from past to present without confusion of time, place or setting. A rare talent!
Anne Patchett’s latest novel is told in the first person and felt a bit like reading someone’s diary. It is a story of substance, interjected with Danny’s intimate thoughts as he grows up and as a grown man. The book is also a survey on the complexity of family and the myriad of issues that can arise and how one deals with hurt, mistrust, health, and abandonment.
A mystique surrounds The Dutch House, a stately home whose previous owner’s portrait still hangs on the wall. It’s after World War II and the house lies abandoned and in decline. Danny’s father Cyril Conroy makes his first major real estate investment by buying the house, moving his wife and young daughter, Maeve, out of poverty and into a new life of comfort and ease, or so he hopes.
Maeve is about 10 years older than Danny, their inseparable relationship solidified by their mother’s absence and their father’s neglect. Maeve is brave, smart, and confident. She fills Danny in on life before he was born and the things he was too young to remember after his mother left. The brother/sister bond is strengthened when their father marries a younger woman, Andrea, who has strategically won her way into The Dutch House and their father’s affections.
As a boy, Danny learns unforgettable lessons while spending Saturdays with his dad as he collects rent and makes repairs for his various tenants. The practice of meeting people of lesser means and the business of being a landlord plants a seed deep in Danny’s soul.
Their stepmother is a hard and demanding woman, ungrateful for the loyal housekeepers. Andrea clearly runs the show. Once Maeve has gone off to college, she inserts herself further into the family by moving Maeve’s room up to the attic. This allows her eldest daughter Norma to have Maeve’s room with its coveted window seat. When Cyril suddenly dies from a heart attack it’s not long before Andrea dismisses both Danny and Maeve, taking over the house and inheritance.
After college Maeve returns to their home town despite her potential to make more of her life in the big city. She is a devoted employee helping to revolutionize her employer’s frozen vegetable business. Danny lives in New York where he pursues a medical degree, maximizing the only inheritance money Andrea concedes to him. His real interest lies elsewhere, but his unwavering devotion to his sister compels him to push through school. Throughout the novel there is a cyclical scene of brother and sister parked down the driveway a distance from the Dutch House. They are irresistibly drawn to the house and sit smoking cigarettes recalling their past and imagining what’s transpired since their departure.
I don’t want to give too much away; there is a reason the book has a long waiting list. The novel begins and ends at the Dutch House. Patchett unveils a story so unexpected and unpredictable, masterfully opening metaphorically closed doors and exploring family dynamics amid poverty, wealth, inheritance, and more. It is a book worth reading!