The Dutch House is a marvelously moving novel about a house, its inhabitants, their lives and the impact of the house on everything. “The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on….The house complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”
The Dutch House is a grand mansion that had been owned by the wealthy VanHoebeek family until their fortunes turned. The last VanHoebeek died in 1945 and the house went back to the bank, although Fluffy, the daughter of the previous caretakers stayed behind. There were portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek over the mantel in the drawing room and portraits of lesser VanHoebeeks throughout the house.
In 1946, Cyril Conroy bought the house as a surprise for his wife Elna. At the time, Cyril and Elna were living in a little house on a military base and were seemingly poor. Fluffy came with the house. So did the portraits.
In addition to Fluffy, sisters Jocelyn and Sandy also helped run the household. Elna had no interest in a mansion. Her interests were directed toward helping the poor. The house, its portraits and all of the domestic help made Elna feel anxious and uncomfortable
Cyril and Elna had two children, Maeve and Danny. Danny, 7 years younger than Maeve, narrates the story. When Danny was 3 years old and Maeve 10, Elna disappeared from their lives and from the Dutch House. Elna’s absence caused Maeve to become extremely ill and she is diagnosed with diabetes which follows her through her life. Danny and Maeve are effectively raised by Fluffy (until she hits Danny with a wooden spoon and is fired) and the two sisters, Jocelyn and Sandy. Maeve and Danny are extremely close, while their father, Cyril, is extremely distant. Cyril is a real estate magnate. Periodically he takes Danny with him to collect rents and scrutinize buildings, which makes Danny feel closer to his father.
One day Cyril brings home a significantly younger (18 years) woman, Andrea, who is completely obsessed with the Dutch House. That obsession is not lost on Maeve and Danny, who view her as an insignificant, intermittent presence. “After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there’d she be at the dining room table again.” Ultimately, Cyril marries her and she moves in with her two daughters, Norma and Bright.
Maeve goes off to Barnard and while she is away Andrea gives Maeve’s room to her daughter Norma and moves Maeve into the attic. Maeve loves Norma and Bright so she takes the change in stride, but limits her trips home.
After Maeve graduates from college she gets her own tiny apartment and goes to work for Otterson’s frozen foods in accounting, where she remains throughout her career. When Danny is 15 and a sophomore in high school, his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Andrea throws Danny out of the Dutch House and Danny and Maeve learn that their father has left everything to Andrea. The only exception is an education trust established for Danny, Norma and Bright, excluding Maeve. “He thought if she went to graduate school she’d only get married halfway through and quit what she’d started.”
Maeve decides that Danny, as the oldest of the three (and in need of someplace to live other than on her couch), should immediately start to use the trust fund and he finishes his high school education at Choate. He then goes on to college and medical school at Columbia (he has no desire to be a doctor but they view this as a good way to use up the trust assets). While traveling on the train from New York to Philadelphia, Danny meets Celeste, who he ultimately marries. Celeste and Maeve do not like each other. Danny observes that “everything Celeste didn’t like about me was Maeve’s fault, because being mad at your husband’s sister was infinitely easier than being mad at your husband.” Danny and Celeste have two children, May and Kevin.
Lots of things happen in this book. Maeve and Danny periodically sit in their car across from the Dutch House just to look at it. Elna suddenly shows up, Fluffy comes back into the picture and somehow Andrea, Norma and the Dutch House reenter their lives.
”There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” A lot of “The Dutch House” finds its protagonists in this position.
In The Dutch House, Ann Patchett creates places, people and circumstances that tug at the reader’s reality. Her story seems simple and straight forward, yet subtly relays a sense of complexity, bringing you close to understanding the world around you. As Danny observes at one point in the book, “Maeve and I were forever under the impression that we were moments away from cracking the code on our life…”. But of course, events always get in the way.
The Dutch House is about perspective. It is a story about how things look and feel to us as we are living them and taking them for granted, while at the same time recognizing how different those same things appear from a different vantage. And of course the story is told with Ann Patchett’s signature humor.
My only disappointment is that I do not get the pleasure of reading this book for the first time. It is simply great. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.