The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Published by Bloomsbury

The story of the wicked stepmother isn’t a new one, and in this version she’s keeping up the tradition in fine form. Maeve and Danny are the children of property magnate Cyril Conroy, a self-made man of gruff demeanour. The purchase of a grand, cavernous house sends their mother, his wife into a great depression and she eventually ups and leaves, taking off to feed the poor and needy in India.

Left alone, the children take comfort from their domestic help, a couple of capable sisters. But the sisters go home to their own families at night, and Maeve and Danny must make do with only each other for company. With a good seven years between them Maeve has no real choice but to take on a motherly role, with Danny more than happy to settle in to this new routine, in the absence of any parental guidance.

That is until Andrea arrives. A shrewd, pretty young widow she soon ingratiates herself in to the Conroys’ lives, springing a pair of daughters on them one minute, marrying Cyril in a lavish ceremony the next. When, after a few years of living in unsettled co-habitation Cyril unexpectedly dies, Andrea takes immediately takes umbrage with the way Maeve and Danny handled the death, in their shell-shocked grief, and turfs Danny out in to the care of his sister who has by then graduated college and has a small flat of her own.

The Dutch House of the title, is difficult to imagine, at least it was for me. It’s described as having store-front like windows that enable a passing pedestrian to see right through the house to the back garden. It has a ballroom on the third floor – a brief architectural trend, apparently – and nooks and crannies aplenty. Rather than being named for its style the Dutch House is given the moniker after its initial owners, a family from The Netherlands who rose and fell, leaving all their earthly belongings behind when the house was seized and they were forced to flee.

One of the only new adornments to the already furnished and decorated house is a portrait of Maeve. Initially commissioned for the lady of house, who refused to be painted, Maeve was drafted in to replace her. A striking image of an emotive young girl with dark hair, wearing a red dress, it, rather than the house is used as the book cover image, tellingly.

Told in a non-linear narrative, through the eyes of Danny, The Dutch House has a fairy-tale element that isn’t immediately apparent. The character of Maeve, as seen through her brother’s eyes, is great – formidable, capable and well-rounded. It is largely Maeve who drives the story; Danny has a revelation when he is taken to visit her while she’s in college in New York, she concocts a scheme to wrangle as much of the paltry estate left to them as possible and Danny goes along with her every suggestion, thus creating a life for himself that is as much hers and it is his.

Spanning five decades, this family drama has all the ups and downs of any other. But Patchett’s beautiful prose, skill with plotting and great ability to realise characters makes it an astonishing read. The wicked stepmother’s daughters are unfortunate offspring, and as unlike the ugly stepsisters as can be. They idolise Maeve from their first meeting and are innocent bystanders in their mother’s unkind antics. Danny’s eventual wife’s part is small but significant, and her character development is utterly believable, as is Danny’s, from a bewildered boy of four to confident teenager to husband and father. The brother and sister team are at the crux of the story, with the supporting characters such as their cook and housekeeper, wayward mother and churlish father, aforementioned step-mother and siblings and all the rest woven around them. Like Hansel and Gretel they’re survivors. Their bond is unmistakeable and remarkable. The Dutch House is largely a story about that bond, but also, like many stories of its ilk is a cautionary tale of resilience. An intelligent and captivating read, it wholeheartedly deserves the hype naming it the book of the autumn.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 30 10 19.

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