This year I am reading all of Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ picks, this book was chosen for the month of May.
‘The Dutch House’ by Anne Patchett is a historical fiction novel and was Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of The Month’ for May. It currently has an average rating of 4.17 on Goodreads, I awarded it 4 stars.
The story follows Danny and Maeve, two siblings and their lives surrounding the Dutch House, a lavish mansion their father bought years ago. Their father is distant and their mother missing, so Danny looks up to Maeve and together they raise each other. All is well until one day their father brings Andrea home, and though they don’t know it that one choice sows the seeds for the defining loss of their lives. Set over the course of five decades it’s a story of two siblings tied together by love, loss and the bonds of place and time.
“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”
An enchanting and intoxicating tale of two sibling’s lives and how they always return to The Dutch House. The story is told from the perspective of Danny Conroy, the younger of the two siblings in a non-linear reminiscents of the past as he attempts to bring all the pieces of their lives together to tell their story.
Patchett masterfully builds Danny and Maeve, our two main characters, into people the reader can’t help but love despite their flaws or maybe because of their flaws. Both are excellent and truly the driving force of the narrative even though they are both completely remarkable people. However the author does not just cast her talent of building characters on just these two, she casts the same treatment across a whole host of characters and it’s hard not to fall for all of them. The minor characters including Bright, Norma, Sarah, Jocelyn and others all feel very real and fleshed out despite some not receiving much time in the novel. Patchett has truly built a masterclass of characters in this book.
This is a very character driven novel so the plot is not as well defined as you may find in other novels, however it is set over the course of five decades so you truly experience a lot with these characters and you never grow bored or tired of what you’re reading.
The book in itself deals with a lot of themes surrounding love, loss, family and in particular forgiveness. It truly explores grey morality and how far people’s actions can either be good or bad, and if the people we view as good can be viewed as good by everyone. It deals with a range of complex thoughts, perceptions and ideas and you will leave the book with no definitive answer as to whether something is good or bad.
The writing style is very easy to digest also and is able to carry a range of emotions from pure rage to grief and to humour, and you’re taken on a complete emotional story with all the characters.
Overall, this is a stunning novel that deals heavily with complex ideas whilst also remaining emotive and captivating. I was unable to put this down and read it in just over a day as I was desperate to stay with those characters and live in the pages with them. I would recommend this to you if you enjoy character driven stories and adult fiction, however it’s not for you if you’re new to adult fiction or enjoy something with action.
I flew through this novel, I found I couldn’t put this down at any point because I kept wanting to know what had happened to the main characters. Really I shouldn’t have been surprised as this is my kind of cup of tea: a character driven novel full of angst with an easy to digest writing style is my kind of thing.
Danny and Maeve were fantastic main characters and I loved how both were created and built by Patchett. Danny was obviously the more level-headed of the two but had his flaws in his inability to follow his dreams immediately, and definitely in his somehwat mistreatment of his wife due to his uncertainity of who he was. Whilst Maeve was clearly not as level-headed and could be very petty (which was very funny) but was more sure of who she was, and therefore the two balanced each other out well as siblings. They were so well-rounded it often felt as if I was living their lives with them, and I was walking the inked pages, strolling along sentences arm in arm.
The two’s relationship really was the pillar that held this novel up and it did it’s job well. This is one of the very few times after reading a book I can say this read like a sibling relationship, and whilst Danny viewed Maeve as a more maternal figure than most younger brothers do with their sisters, it still felt like they were siblings and therefore desperately falling back on each other throughout life. It was nice to see a relationship like this as the main focus of a novel as there is nothing quite like sibling relationships in life, it is possibly the one relationship where you can grow up as enemies and then become life-long friends and confidents afterwards; it’s perhaps also the most forgiving kind of relationship we encounter, which played well into one of the novel’s main themese: forgiveness. Maeve and Danny’s realtionship showcases a lot in this novel and always acts to remind the reader that no matter what they have each other.
Not only did the book explore a sibling’s relationship but it explored family in quite a lot of detail. From a distant mother and father, to the evil stepmother, to those stepmother’s children and then to family that we choose rather than recieve. The message at the end seemed to be that family was family and not matter how far you ran from them you never truly escaped them, and also that you could always mend those bonds that had been broken. I thought this was quite a controversial point to make, particularly in the case of Elna who had adandoned both Maeve and Danny as children. When Elna returned it was very easy for her to find Maeve’s forgiveness, which was to illustrate many of Maeve’s problems stemmed form her mother’s absence but also served to to show how strong that bond is. Whilst this was interesting it was definitely a rather contorversial thing to do, many of us would expect a character to feel a little more conflicted after their absentee mother retuned decades later rather than joy. I believe this was explored better in Danny who had a hard time forgiving his mother, and was shown to dislike her and her return, however I’m not sure it was handled as well as it could have been as when he did forgive and let her into his life that decision felt rushed.
I personally really enjoyed the plot as it was one that spanned decades. It isn’t the kind of plot that is for everyone, there is no action and it’s certainly not fast-paced, but it’s emotive and exhausting to read for that reason. We are able to follow the two main characters and their lives from their lives as children to the hardships they have to suffer together as they near their 50s, so we do learn who they are inside out and I’m very nosy in real life, so I love it when I get to learn about a character so intimately like that.
However, there were a couple of points in this book I was unsure of. I think if Andrea’s past and background had been exmained to see why she was the ‘evil stepmother’ it would have added something special to the narrative, and instead all we got was an evil stepmother stereotype, and whilst this was well done it was still an underveloped stereotype. I was also unsure as to what the symbolism of Danny’s daughter buying the house at the end of the novel was. As before in the novel it had stood as a symbol for childhood grief and trauma for Danny and Maeve, but then Danny’s daughter bought it at the end as a very successful actress, and threw parties there to almost suggest the house was a symbol of something happier. I felt like that might be a continuinity error, or perhaps I’m siimply not intelligent enough to understand this shift in symbolism.
Overall though this is a great character-driven book that aims to study the impact of family and loss on people, and how that can impact your choice to forgive others. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in those themes, but also to those who enjoy character driven stories.