Book review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Patchett is the master of family dynamics

The Dutch House, like Patchett’s Commonwealth, is brilliant in its portrayal of family dynamics. She captures the interplay of different personalities, alliances, and motivations between family members better than any author I know. About two pages into her latest novel and she has already painted a brilliant, captivating and convincing picture of a family (funny reference for if you have read this book) that sets the characters and their plots running. Like watching wind up toys in motion, the reader can’t help but read on to see who ends up where.

The family of The Dutch House is the Conroy’s. At their head is a single father, left by his ideological wife; his teenage daughter, Maeve; and pre-teen son, Danny, the novel’s protagonist. Together, they occupy the ancestral home of a different family, acquired with new money. The novel follows their lives from the point that they are disrupted, when a woman named Andrea appears on the scene coveting their father and their home.

This novel, like the titular Dutch House, contains some very rare and unique features, not found in your average suburban novel. 

Unusual feature number one: at the centre of the story is a sibling relationship. This is quite rare in itself but this is the only story (novel, film, TV show or otherwise) that I can think of that revolves around the relationship of a brother and sister.

Unusual feature number two: the main character in this novel is a real estate mogul and this is not the story of him being an arsehole on the way to redemption. Patchett actually presents a landlord as a good person – successfully!

Unusual feature number three: related to number two, it is a story about wealthy people who aren’t completely insufferable. In my opinion this is no easy feat, as my review of The Party is testament to. Only Ann Patchett could pull this off, putting Danny and Maeve through enough adversity to make them convincingly level headed and humble enough not to hate.

In short, Patchett’s characters do not fit the usual, overused molds that we are used to seeing. They play against type, if such a thing is at all possible for fictional characters. It’s not flashy or rug-pulling but it does keep you interested because nobody acts in the way you quite expect. The tapestry is richer than that, the character’s personalities more complex, their motives more human.

Patchett knows how to write likable characters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are nice, but all of the characters, even “the evil step mom”, have something redeeming about them. Characters both “good” and “bad” make mistakes but have reasons that are understandable, just as even the worst people have in real life. Patchett is very even handed with her characters in that way.

This novel is not a thriller or even particularly plot driven. It is the story about a place, and the people in it, and how it unites them. If you are looking for a fast paced novel with a lot of twists, this isn’t it, but I recommend reading it anyway for a more subtle but no less interesting story of human drama. The kind that you can imagine people gossiping about in Pennsylvania. A story told by your mum at the dinner table – “You’ll never guess what happened to the Conroy children from the Dutch House? You know, the big house. Well their mother left when they were young of course…” Patchett’s mastery is in making it real so you are almost convinced that these characters exist.

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