“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside.”
Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up in the Dutch House, a unique and magnificent home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which their father purchased for their mother with the hard earnings of his own self-made real estate empire, built up in the aftermath of WWII. But the house undoes Cyril Conroy’s first marriage, leaving Maeve to raise Danny with the help of Sandy and Jocelyn, two sisters who work in the kitchen and manage the household. It is their father’s remarriage to the despised Andrea that truly sets the chain of events in motion that will define their lives as orphans who have only one another to rely on. As drawn to the Dutch House as Elna Conroy was repulsed by it, Andrea becomes the villain, the wicked stepmother who dispossesses and exiles her stepchildren. Her choice will reverberate through all their lives over the course of the coming decades.
Although Danny is the narrator of this tale, he is probably the least interesting character in the book. He is also not the most insightful, though there is enough detail that is observed but not understood for the reader to pick up the things that he is missing. I personally would have been more interested in Maeve’s perspective, but as Ann Patchett herself put it in an interview on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Maeve is not the sort of person who would ever think her own story is worth telling. She is not as self-effacing as her mother, but nor can she countenance being at the center of attention. So we are left with Danny, who is surrounded by a cast of fascinating women, all of whom are holding him up, always ensuring that the fifteen year old boy who lost his father and his home finds his way, continuing long after he is grown. Even flipping to the perspective of Andrea might be fascinating, because she is the character into whom we get the least insight, seeing her always through Danny’s eyes and grievances.
Another intriguing character is Fiona, who also grew up in the Dutch House before Danny and Maeve, because her parents were the caretakers for the previous owners, the VanHoebeeks, whose possessions still decorate the Dutch House like some sort of museum to the past. Like Danny and Maeve, Fiona is exiled from the Dutch House, fired by Mr. Conroy after she strikes four year old Danny, an event he can barely remember. When Fiona finally resurfaces late in the book, she serves as contrast to Elna Conroy, the mother who abandoned her children in order to serve those she felt needed her more. Danny is able to forgive Fiona quite readily, something he is not so easily able to extend to his own mother when he is finally forced to reckon with some of the shades of his past.
The Dutch House is permeated by a strong sense of two people who are not living entirely in the present moment, but are in constant state of reaction to the hurts of their past. This is echoed in some ways by Patchett’s choice to set the book in the near past, perhaps not far enough to really be considered historical fiction, but not present either. The loss of their parents and their home is a wound that Danny and Maeve can’t seem to help reopening again and again, every time they park in front of the Dutch House, unable to go inside, but unable to stop watching it from afar. This is paired with the more obviously destructive metaphor of their smoking habit, something a doctor and a diabetic should surely know better than to engage in, yet can’t quite seem to kick. Maeve has pushed Danny through a rigorous education, including an elite private boarding school and a top medical school, even though he had no desire to be a doctor, all in service of taking the only thing they can access from their stepmother; money from the shared educational trust established for Danny and for Andrea’s two daughters. Unable to go back to school herself, Maeve sets Danny to fulfilling her missed opportunities.
As Maeve and Danny grow up, echoes of their parents’ lives haunt them, and an omnipresent past hovers overhead, certainly not dead, and not even really past so long as it is kept alive by the living, constantly turned over and reimagined until it is finally worn smooth.
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