Sometimes I need a glorious bit of good old-fashioned storytelling, something to bury myself in and distract myself from the world and its woes. Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House, is exactly that. It’s the story of an unusual, beautiful house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world.
When Cyril Conroy takes his wife to see the Dutch House, she’s appalled, convinced they’re trespassing. Its walls are lined with grand portraits of the Van Hoebeeks, the family who commissioned this mansion full of light but now in disrepair. Having quietly built up a property management business, Cyril has bought the house, presenting it as a gift to Elna but she’s never happy there. One day she disappears, or so it seems to Danny, her eight-year-old son. Cyril rarely speaks of her again leaving Danny and his sister Maeve to puzzle over what has happened to her. Maeve takes over the mothering of Danny who idolises her. One day, Cyril introduces them to a small, neatly turned out woman who will eventually become their stepmother bringing her two daughters with her. Andrea adores the Dutch House, but not her stepchildren, throwing them out when Cyril dies. Over the years, Maeve and Danny return, parking just across the road, seemingly unable to resist the house’s lure. Maeve remains the lynchpin of Danny’s life. He takes up his place at medical school to please her but once qualified builds a property business, just like Cyril. He marries and has two children but Maeve remains single, living not so very far from the Dutch House. One day, Danny is called to the hospital and what he finds when he gets there will both change and disconcert him.
John Irving popped into my head several times while reading this novel. Using the device of the Dutch House, Patchett explores the history of a family who have been both obsessed and shaped by this gorgeous piece of architecture. Themes of motherhood, privilege, obsession and communication, or the lack of it, run through the Conroys’ story, told from the perspective of Danny who seems intent on replicating his father’s life even if he doesn’t realise it, self-knowledge not being his strong suit.
She might have packed her disappointments away in a box, but she carried the box with her wherever she went
Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well-crafted absorbing and satisfying.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London 2019 9781526614964 337 pages Hardback
That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Portugal to explore the Alentejo and probably read a book or three.