Monday, February 24, 2020

Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Pages: 337
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019
Publisher:  Harper
Source: Library
Other Books By Author: Commonwealth
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.  The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.  Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives, they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested."

Cyril Conroy has always struggled financially until he made some right decisions in his real-estate development business and now it's booming. So much so that he surprises his wife with a huge home that he bought in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. His wife, Elna, thought they were poor, so The Dutch House, aptly named for its former Dutch residents, is a surprise she necessarily wanted. It's a foreboding mansion and isn't one that she would choose to raise her family in.  Nonetheless, the Conroys move in along with their young daughter, Maeve.  Many years later and their son, Danny, comes along, but one thing remains the same. Elna doesn't like living at the Dutch House with its sprawling rooms and ominous portraits staring back at her.  One day Elna leaves and doesn't return, which leaves Fluffy, the nanny, to help raise the two Conroy children as their father is really hands off.  Obviously, the moment their mother leaves and doesn't return is one that truly shapes Maeve's life as she is ten years old.  Danny is much younger and can bounce back a bit, but this leaves a hole in Maeve's heart.  A few years later, Cyril starts seeing someone new and to complicate matters further, this woman has two young daughters.  Cyril marries the new Mrs. Conroy, who loves the old Pennsylvania mansion, and now Maeve and Danny find themselves with a new stepmother and two young stepsisters.  The new Mrs. Conroy is exactly what you would expect from a quintessential stepmother straight out of a fairy tale.  She is cold, she is manipulative, and she doesn't like Maeve or Danny. Without giving too much away, Maeve and Danny find themselves in dire circumstances when their stepmother wants them out of the house. Maeve and Danny find themselves on their own and facing poverty.  The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a brilliant study in human behavior; it's a story that truly made me linger and soak up each memorable scene.

Maeve is such an interesting character in The Dutch House. Even though she isn't the narrator of the story, I was still drawn to her.  Her will, her determination, her stubbornness, and tenacity all made her such a compelling character, even down to the thoughtful observations she made on just about everything. Some of her observations made me question my own memories of the past. The Dutch House does this though. It makes you think. And Maeve brings up many interesting questions and points, whether directly or subtly.  The novel made me question memories versus reality and how the memories often get misconstrued for a variety of reasons.  As Maeve and Danny tried to figure out the past, it made me think, too, which is the sign of an excellent novel.

Danny is the narrator of The Dutch House and while he isn't as thoughtful as Maeve, I still liked how he left the story unfold.  As a young child, he had his sister to lean on.   I love that Danny is loyal to Maeve as he knows all she has given up for him.  Maeve took care of him and because he was so young when their mother left, he really isn't too impacted by it like Maeve is.  He has a relationship with his father and is learning all about the real-estate business from him, but Cyril is a chilly father and one that no one can get close enough to. 

The Dutch House is such a complex novel. I expected so much more to actually happen and not much does despite the fact that it spans generations. It's a quiet read and a study of human nature; however, it was completely captivating. The Dutch House examines human behavior better than any novel I had read lately and does so in a fascinating way. 

The actual house became this larger than life setting in The Dutch House and it becomes its very own character. I love that the setting takes place outside of Philadelphia; my fellow local readers will enjoy that tidbit. Patchett describes the house so well that I started to think of it as a real place and it ended up taking on a life of its own.

Patchett draws on many fairy tale elements in The Dutch House.  Combine these elements with excellent characterization and Patchett's beautiful writing, you've got yourself a positively memorable read. It's one of my favorites of the year!  If you love family dramas with a psychological twist, stop what you are doing today and get a copy of The Dutch House.

Are you a fan of Ann Patchett? Did you read The Dutch House? I loved it so much more than Commonwealth.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. I always love when a place or a house becomes a character all in its own! This sounds fantastic!

    1. Me too! I think you'd like The Dutch House, Angela! Thanks for visiting!


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