The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Good old-fashioned storytelling

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.

26 thoughts on “The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Good old-fashioned storytelling”

  1. The Irving comparison is a good one — I thought Patchett got into a male character’s head very convincingly. I’m always impressed when an author can get the opposite gender right.

    Enjoy your trip!

  2. This does sound like a beautiful novel. I have only ever read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and can’t remember much about it. I hope you have a fabulous holiday, with plenty of reading time.

    1. It’s lovely, Ali. Funnily enough, despite being a Patchett fan I didn’t get on with Bel Canto. Thank you – I’m sitting in our lovely guesthouse garden with my book next to me ready to pick up.

  3. I can totally understand the appeal of good old-fashioned storytelling, especially in such uncertain and turbulent times. There’s something comforting about that sense of familiarity, of knowing the narrative will deliver by the end. For some reason, I always seem to get this author mixed up with Anne Tyler, even though their first names are not quite the same. Are there any similarities between the these authors’ styles?

      1. I’m with you absolutely on the way that good storytelling helps ease our current collective angst. On the Tyler point, I’d say that if you like one you’d like the other.

        I love Portuguese wines and am happy to say our local Majestic stocks a few now. They’re not so easy to find at home. I had a very nice carafe of house wine for 2 Euros last night. Very welcome after a day’s travel.

  4. I’m really looking forward to this. However, I’m having to wait awhile to read it because I’ve needed to badger both local authority libraries that I use to buy a copy. Why an author like Patchett isn’t automatically on their acquisition list, I have no idea.

  5. It’s always nice to have another Ann Patchett to look forward to. And I love the idea of using a house as a device to tell a story. Houses must have so much to say!

  6. I really like the sound of this! I’ve just read State of Wonder, which had mixed reviews, but I loved it. She takes you into a world and makes you not want to leave.

  7. I feel spoiled for choice at the moment with all of these books coming out from favourite authors (Patchett and Atwood and in Australia, Charlotte Wood, Heather Rose, Favel Parrett, Elliot Perlmann….)

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