The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
Harper Collins, hardback, 337 pp. 

A New Page-Turner from Ann Patchett

By Kristen Sulser Guinn
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

With a title like “The Dutch House,” one doesn’t expect Ann Patchett’s latest book to read much like a conventional southern novel. The setting is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, suburb in a lavish mansion commissioned by the VanHoebeeks–Dutch immigrants who made their fortune in the cigarette industry during the First World War.

But Patchett’s tale is, in fact, more reminiscent of a William Faulkner or Walker Percy story than one might expect.

Patchett’s fresh revision of southern literature’s grand themes beguiles the reader from page one of “The Dutch House,” with all the intricate tropes of family, history, place and identity reimagined and reinvented from one of the South’s best contemporary writers.

Fans of “Absalom, Absalom!” or “The Moviegoer” should give Patchett’s new literary gem a try. It won’t disappoint.

Central to “The Dutch House” is the enigmatic manor and its newly monied owners, Cyril and Elna Conroy. Cyril buys the fully-furnished estate at the end the Second World War as a surprise for his wife, who despite her best efforts, comes to revile the home’s pageantry and ostentation and deserts her husband and two young children for Catholic charity work in India.

Told from the perspective of the Conroy’s youngest child, Danny, the novel chronicles a son’s longing for his missing mother, his devotion to and adoration of his older sister, Maeve, and his struggle to unravel the pieces of the past. At the same time, Danny must come to terms with his own identity once his father dies and leaves him penniless and at the mercy of a shallow and wicked stepmother.

Danny’s insights throughout are gripping, familiar and authentic: “There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

In spite of this powerful narrative voice, we learn later in the novel from Danny that “The story of my sister was the only one I was ever meant to tell…” And so, while the novel spans three generations of Conroys, the hauntingly beautiful portrait of Maeve that graces “The Dutch House” cover is clear. This, after all, is Maeve’s story, too.

The love story in “The Dutch House” is the one between brother and sister; Danny and Maeve’s relationship will be what you remember most about this book, as the siblings cleave to each another through their riches-to-rags life. Danny confesses “The joy of my childhood ended not when my mother left, but when Maeve left.”

And although Danny ultimately marries and raises two children, there’s little left for his own wife; the pull to Maeve, always, is great indeed, even when that relationship is put to the ultimate test.

As Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, “The Dutch House” demonstrates a master at the top of her game–a brilliantly written family epic, with characters who feel like your friends and a place choreographed to seem as real as your own backyard. You won’t forget the time spent there.

Kristen Sulser Guinn holds degrees in English from Vanderbilt and the University of Mississippi. She is an avid reader and a freelance writer.

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