“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”
A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial.
Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.
My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.
“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”
Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.
The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.
To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.
But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.
The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way. Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens.