Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“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. 

The Dutch House.

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 how?”

“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. 

Review copy. 



Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann

The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover by Linda Wolfe.

The book The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover gives us a glimpse into the attitudes and prejudices of early 19th century America. The title also holds no secret as to what happened to Dr Chapman, an affluent speech therapist who died after a long, painful, violent illness, or that his wife (hardly a grieving widow) and her lover were hauled into court for the crime. So while the title gives us the basic premise of the book: husband dead–wife and lover accused, some of the most intriguing elements of this crime include questions of guilt, but also how society closed ranks against Lucretia–but only when convenient to do so.

After reading about various Victorian murderesses–some who got away with their crimes, I was ready to read about the Chapman case–a cause célèbre of its times partly due to the degree of scandal involved but also a famous case thanks to the salacious memoirs of one of the accused and also the extensive journalistic coverage of the case by William E. Du Bois.

dr chapmanLucretia and William Chapman ran a boarding school, taught the children of the local elite, and enjoyed successful careers. William had an international reputation for improving stammering, and ambitious, well-educated Lucretia was known to bring her charges to church every Sunday. Images of both of these people seep through the pages, and there’s the sense that this was a marriage that ‘worked’ well as a business arrangement but that by 1831, 5 children later, all romance, passion and even affection, if they’d ever been present in the first place, were now, at least, entirely absent.  William had gained an enormous amount of weight, seemed to have delusions of his own grandeur and chose to be increasingly absent when it came to family life interactions.

So with the Chapmans’ marriage stagnant and at a stalemate, trouble arrived on their doorstep in the form of a man, originally a Colombian, whose family relocated to Cuba: Carolino Estrada Entrealgo, otherwise known as Lino, a thief and a murderer who was tossed out of Cuba and who washed up, eventually, at the Andalasia mansion owned by the Chapmans. Well, you can guess what happened next….

We see Lino as a clever con-man and exactly the circumstances that contributed to Lucretia being duped by a penniless, tattily dressed, albeit exotic, stranger who posed as the son of the governor of California. It’s interesting, though, that while Lucretia and Wiliam Chapman were duped into thinking that Lino was a wealthy man who’d suffered from a series of catastrophes, the merchant who was told to supply Lino with new clothing on credit was not fooled for a moment, and, in reality, all the signals of Lino’s duplicity were there–including his refusal to write anything because he was “ashamed” of his handwriting.

The book covers the story of William’s horrible death, Lucretia’s hasty marriage to Lino (9 days after the death of her husband), Lino’s behaviour after his marriage, the investigation into William’s death, and the trial.  I can only conclude that Lucretia must have been head over heels in love with Lino. If she didn’t see the warning signs before the death of her husband, Lino rapidly gave her reason to suspect his motives soon afterwards.

The book draws a portrait of Philadelphia life, a city known to be “particularly stuffy,” and we’re told that “Charles Dickens complained that after he walked about the town for an hour or two, its monotony made him feel as if he was metamorphosing into a Quaker.”  Coincidentally, I just finished reading John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick which is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, and the impression I gained from that book was that the region was insufferably stuffy–well at least the circle of society O’Hara’s characters moved in.

The book includes details of the notorious trial with its many colorful participants–including lawyers who saw the case as an important step in their careers. Towards the end of the book, author Linda Wolfe offers her own version of what really happened at the Chapman home. I won’t give away the verdict or the fate of Lucretia and Lino, but it’s interesting to see how society and the law closed ranks on this pair. Society’s judgment proved every bit as effective as the legal judgment.

Review copy.


Filed under Non Fiction