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Book review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I loved reading Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, so I was looking forward to reading her most recent novel about families, and all of the complication and complexity of those relationships.

At the beginning, The Dutch House met the brief. I was intrigued by the family who lived in the dutch house in the US, a large, glass-fronted house full of antiques overlooked by the portraits of the previous owners of the house.

The children, Maeve and Danny, were living alone with their father after their mother mysteriously left when Danny was a toddler. When their father meets a woman, Andrea, who is fascinated by the house. They have no choice but to live in a house where they are treated as annoyances, although their new stepsisters adore them.

From here, things collapse when their father dies, leaving the property to Andrea. Unfortunately, this is also the point where the story loses a bit of its shine.

The rest of the novel follows the lives of Danny and Maeve as they navigate life without their parents and the Dutch House. However, it is hard to escape the sense that they are living ordinary lives, with nothing of much interest happening. There is a little bit of conflict between Danny’s wife and his sister, and the story of the absent mother continues, yet it all seems a little … boring.

I love reading about everyday lives as much as the next person, but I think that these books require a significant level of insight into the human condition. Writers who do this well include Jonathan Franzen, John Updike and Alice Munro.

And I know that Patchett can tackle the everyday as well as anyone, but after the halfway point, I didn’t feel she carried through on the novel’s early promise.

There were certainly some high points. The siblings’ love permeates the novel, as Maeve initially cares for her younger brother, taking on the role of a mother in his life.

I enjoyed the setting that Patchett created, with the Dutch House looming over the lives of all who had resided there. For some, it was a thing of pain, and for others, it had an irresistible pull. In my mind, I could see that beautiful bay window in Maeve’s old room, and the portraits staring down at the inhabitants.

The exploration of Danny’s career choices, and the way we are thrust into roles in which we have no interest, was eye-opening. His comment that few medical students were there because they actually wanted to become doctors was believable, as was the relationship between Danny and his wife.

The mother’s motivations were a bit less convincing to me, but I don’t want to go into them for fear of a spoiler.

All up, this book was an enjoyable read, without being a hugely affecting or memorable one. There were sparks of Patchett’s brilliance at the start, but unfortunately, that spluttered out about midway through the novel.

The Dutch House is available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

 

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