This character driven novel broodily unpacks the drama of a family over five decades.
Right after WW2, Cyril Conroy buys a run-down mansion as surprise for his wife, Elna. With their daughter Maeve, they move into the house which is still filled with the previous family’s abandoned belongings. Elna is uncomfortable and unhappy with the ostentatiousness of her new surroundings and Cyril brings in servants to help in the mistaken belief that this will make his wife happy. Elna has a son Danny, ten years after Maeve and she continues to be restless disappearing for days when finally, when Danny is three, she inexplicably abandons her family and disappears for good.
Danny is the unreliable narrator of this story. He tries to make sense of his past as well as his present. He remembers little of his mother and his father is remote. He relies on the servants and his older sister for his care. When his father marries Andrea, two more children are brought into the house. Life becomes more difficult for Danny and his sister when it’s clear that Andrea is a reluctant step-mother. When his father dies, Andrea throws fifteen-year-old Danny and her sister out to look after themselves.
The thing about an unreliable narrator like Danny is that he is on the periphery of the family story. As an adult, he is almost clueless about the women of this family, including his wife, struggling to understand how they think and why. Yet his clingy possessiveness of his sister (mother substitute) affects him for life.
Is your childhood home as central to who you are? In this case it’s pivotal. The Dutch House is a symbol for what was good and bad in the brother and sisters’ lives.
I found it interesting that Danny wanted so much to be like his father. A father who became rich without his wife knowing, who bought her The Dutch House as a romantic and generous gesture not knowing his wife hated it.
‘God’s truth,’ Maeve said. ‘Our father was a man who had never met his own wife.’
Danny falls into the trap himself with his own wife and history repeats itself except that he eventually comes to realise it. His reliance on his sister was interesting and almost stifling. And although we learn a lot about Maeve through his eyes, there’s a lot we don’t know. We never know if Maeve had romantic interests or friends and I wonder if the closeness Danny had for her was not as close as it could have been.
The same can be said of the step-mother painted as evil and money hungry who loved the house, yet she is as mysterious to brother and sister and reader alike.
It’s a modern-day Cinderella story up to a point and the love between the siblings is intense and tender. I love Patchett’s writing style, easy to read, yet beautifully crafted. It’s a slow burn of a story, so take your time and enjoy it.