Can you escape your past? That’s one of the major questions explored in The Dutch House. And for the two main characters, Maeve and Danny, the answer is “not really.”
Maeve and Danny’s father bought the Dutch House and all its contents when they were quite young. The house, located in the Philadelphia suburbs, is an embarrassingly opulent mansion that inspires very diverse reactions in the different characters. To their father, it represented a successful journey out of poverty. Their mother felt terribly stifled by it. It inspired possessiveness in their stepmother. And for Maeve and Danny, it represented both fond and terrible memories and became a heavy anchor to the past that constantly weighed them down.
Danny is the narrator of The Dutch House and towards the end he states that his narrative is intended to be a tribute to his sister. Although about 8 years apart in age, the two are very close. Maeve mothered him when their mother abandoned them. Together, they suffered through an indifferent father and a stepmother who threw them out of the house when their father died. I mostly liked the strong sibling relationship, but Maeve really dominated Danny, even more-or-less forcing Danny to go to medical school when he had no intention of practicing medicine.
For her part, Maeve had the most trouble shaking off the past. She’s the type of person who mentally chronicles past incidents and their details, like what people were wearing and what food was served. She loved to reminisce about the past and would park outside the Dutch House and stew over how badly her stepmother mistreated Danny and her. She never really moved forward, but seemed content with that.
The Dutch House plays a prominent role throughout the novel. Sometimes it seems sinister, as if it does strange things to people’s minds. And, in fact, it keeps drawing Maeve back to it like a malignant magnet. But part of the reason she kept going back was because her stepmother still lived there. In the end, the house was redeemed. It’s just a house and what matters is who lives in it.
In addition to the theme of escaping your past, a secondary theme that I found interesting involved Maeve and Danny’s mother, Elna. She had an uncompromising desire to help people. It was a real obsession for her. This might sound like a pretty good obsession to have, but she abandoned her family to go to India to serve the poor after reading an article about Sister Teresa. This was devastating for her kids. Here’s the interesting part. When talking about Elna, one of the characters said, “[W]hen you think about saints, I don’t imagine any of them made their families happy.” I found that really profound. It’s something I never thought about before. But it didn’t absolve her from the sin of deserting her family.
Overall, I liked The Dutch House. The characters were well-developed, the themes were interesting and explored with skill, and it made me think. If you’re looking for action or suspense, this is not the book for that. But if you want to read about how life events can shape us in unexpected ways, I think you’ll like this one.
Have you read The Dutch House? What did you think?
4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett”
I’ve not read it but I think based on your review I might. The part about saints and their families was a really interesting point. If you’ve ever read Anne Lamott I think her parents were similar. – she often mentions them as great activists but crappy parents. I bet you have read her stuff but if not I highly recommend her books. Funny and irreverent, spiritual, real, raw …
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Hi Lori! Thanks for the comment! I have not read anything by Anne Lamott, but from the summaries I read on the library site, they look interesting. Which book would you suggest I read first?
Your review made me think of other books where the house plays a dominant character role: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson; Wuthering Heights; Manderley in “Rebecca.” It’s interesting that the houses are usually portrayed as negative, as they are in this book. I like your comment: “It’s just a house and what matters is who lives in it.” This book was not on my list, but I think I’ll add it – it sounds sad, but not anxiety provoking.
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Thanks, Martha! That sounds like a great idea for a blog post – “10 Books Haunted by Houses.”