There are plenty of reasons to buy a book. Not all of them are great but they exist. I bought a copy of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett because it was beautiful. I found a hardback copy with stencilled edges and had to own it. I’d never read anything by Patchett before and I knew nothing about the book. Needless to say that it sat on my shelf going unread for ages. To encourage me I even bought the audiobook back when I still had an Audible account. Since leaving Audible, I’ve let my library lie unlistened to for ages. So, I decided to get back into it. Why did I start with this one? I’d previously downloaded it and it was under 10 hours long. Seemed like as good a reason as any.
Having never read anything by Ann Patchett before, I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Dutch House. I’m the kind of person who prefers character development to plot-heavy books, so it was pretty easy to fall for this one. It might span quite a few decades but it still feels quite light on plot. Not in a bad way. Instead, we get an in-depth view of the relationship between two siblings and how it evolves over the years. The Dutch House manages to be an epic but incredibly intimate portrayal of the connection between a brother and sister. Danny and Maeve Conroy only have each other left since their mother abandoned them and their father died. Their childhood home was taken away from them by their evil stepmother but they haven’t been able to let the Dutch House go. It has haunted most of their lives as they imagine how different their lives could have been.
The chronology flits all over the place as Danny tells his story in quite a fragmented way. It’s a technique that I’m not always a fan of but I think it works really well here. It just goes to show how important the Dutch House still is to the pair. We get memories within memories that lead us back into the home they were kicked out of. We slowly learn more about their upbringing and the different ways the pair view their childhood. Particularly the way their view their parents. Maeve has strong memories of their mother and still misses her. Danny was too young to remember her leaving, so he just holds resentment towards her. This also means Danny feels a stronger connection with his father despite knowing very little about his background. Lacking real insight, Danny has been forced to fill in the blanks on his own.
So, he’s not an unreliable narrator exactly but you have to take some of what he says with a pinch of salt. If you only like to read books narrated by people you like then I won’t recommend this to you. It’s not that Danny is awful but he’s frustrating. He’s such a self-absorbed and oblivious man. The way he talks about women isn’t ideal and he’s always so selfish. It would have been interesting to also hear from his Maeve as she seemed like a much more sympathetic and engaging character. Not that she was perfect. Everyone in this book is flawed in some way as they should be. That doesn’t mean they aren’t also human and worth your sympathy. Certainly, the pair had a difficult relationship with their emotionally distant father and were messed up by their stepmother’s treatment of them. Still, there were plenty of times when I was listening to this and just wanted to slap Danny really hard.
The Dutch House explores the idea of memory and how we view our pasts. Danny and Maeve are stuck in the past but are also keen to move beyond it. They have something to prove and both of their lives play out because of their connection to the past. Neither sibling can view their childhood with unbiased eyes and it makes it impossible for them to move on. The book explores the idea of obsession and how bad it can be. Maeve gives up so much when Danny is kicked out by their stepmother. She spends her life making sure he is okay. For his part, Danny mostly looks out for himself. He fights against Maeve’s help and is determined to prove himself in his own way. Although, what is always evident is their connection to each other. Patchett has written a wonderful dynamic between the pair. In fact, all of the characters here are strong and well-developed.
The Dutch House was a beautifully written novel and was engaging from the start. In terms of pace, it’s neither slow nor fast but it all comes together to create something wonderful. It’s the kind of book that you just fall into and forget everything else. Ann Patchett has such an astute understanding of human behaviour and relationships. The themes in this book are so well conveyed and it is definitely the kind of book that you could analyse forever. I’m so glad that I finally read it.
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