That sense of surprise is a rich subject for Ann Patchett in her eighth novel, “The Dutch House.” We remember our childhood homes because they were ours. What is it like to grow up in a home enchanting not only to us but to everybody else?
Maeve and Danny Conroy grow up in the storied Dutch House, a 1922 mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs that was commissioned by the VanHoebeek family, who made a fortune in cigarettes and filled their American home with European treasures, ornate mirrors, wood paneling, fanciful windows and blue Delft mantels “said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts.” The Dutch House is the stuff of fairy tales, and Patchett’s plot sounds like a fairy tale, as well. A mother who runs away from home, an orphaned sister and brother displaced by a grasping stepmother — bare summary sounds like melodrama, and this plot would devolve into cliche in the hands of a softer, more sentimental novelist. Fortunately, Patchett is made of sterner stuff.
Eight years younger than his sister Maeve, Danny Conroy tells the story of his family in and outside the Dutch House. We see the mansion and its inhabitants through Danny’s young eyes, and then we revisit place and people as Danny grows. Like a gradually opening aperture, Danny’s narrow view of rooms and servants broadens to comprehend abandonment by Elna Conroy and the arrival of a brisk stepmother, Andrea, and her little girls, Norma and Bright.
We watch Danny realize that his life is strange, his house extraordinary, that the rooms and people of his childhood are more complex than he imagined. His family’s faithful servants Sandy and Jocelyn are sisters. To his shame, he had “never wondered who they were related to or who they went home to.” Most important, we see Maeve through Danny’s eyes as he grows from dependence to mature appreciation of his brilliant older sister. Danny narrates this story, but Maeve is its heroine — Danny’s protector, teacher, confidante and closest friend. We watch in horror and fascination as Andrea supplants the absent Elna and Norma moves into Maeve’s room with its curtained window seat — a perfect detail straight from another orphan tale, “Jane Eyre.” We feel for brother and sister as they return, like Hansel and Gretel, after their father’s death to gaze at the Dutch House and try to make sense of their past.
Above all, we come to understand the bond between brother and sister. This is the central relationship of the novel — more durable for these two than any other friendship or romantic attachment. Patchett dramatizes this sibling bond as beautiful, necessary and dangerous.
With the loss of mother, father and childhood home, Maeve and Danny become a family of two. Maeve serves in loco parentis, but she also becomes a kind of historian for Danny because she remembers so much more. Pragmatic, clear-eyed and unsentimental, Maeve is nevertheless possessed by the Dutch House. She drives Danny there whenever he is home from school, and they sit together in her parked car to view the mansion and to talk about what they have lost. The ritual is painful and at the same time thrilling because it is theirs alone. Danny does grow up and marry, but this is the true romance of his life, this love triangle — brother, sister, gorgeous house. This is the novel’s beating heart — a strange enchantment in which Maeve waits for her brother to come home and watch the house with her.
Here again, the situation sounds both bleak and fanciful, but Patchett writes with restraint, never indulging in overwrought language. In perhaps the most dramatic scene in the book, Maeve and Danny sit in their parked car and watch as their stepmother emerges from the Dutch House to retrieve her newspaper. Danny observes: “She hadn’t stopped for a scarf. She hadn’t expected the early morning dark to be so clear or the moon so full, and she stood there, taking it in.” Simple language, primarily one-syllable words to convey a moment of almost unbearable suspense, as the orphans watch and speculate on the woman who “threw us out.” In Danny’s account, an ordinary act — picking up a newspaper — becomes ominous. “She was entirely too close, our stepmother, as close as a person on the other side of the street” and then mundane, “I could see both how she had aged and how she was exactly herself: eyes, nose, chin. There was nothing extraordinary about her,” and finally the occasion for sad revelation. “She was a woman I had known in my childhood and now did not know at all.” An epic journey in the space of a few sentences.
Masterfully, this scene dramatizes the central conflict in “The Dutch House”— not the struggle between orphans and stepmother, innocent children and wicked witch — but the war between memory and mature reflection, childhood myth and adult analysis. A classic theme, but what makes this novel extraordinary is Patchett’s fair-minded presentation. She inhabits both the child and adult point of view. Both have their powers, their insights and deceptions, their vanities, cruelties and passions. The outcome is uncertain, lives hang in the balance, and we cannot stop reading. Subtle mystery, psychological page-turner, Patchett’s latest is a thriller.
Allegra Goodman’s novels include “Intuition,” “The Cookbook Collector,” “ Paradise Park” and “Kaaterskill Falls.”
THE DUTCH HOUSE
By Ann Patchett
Harper. 337 pp. $27.99