The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a gripping examination of what makes a home

A novel that makes the reader reflect upon how much anyone ever knows about a family, about the truth of any relationship.

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I sometimes think that reading a novel by Ann Patchett is like climbing into a luxurious automobile and hitting the road on a perfect day. Patchett is in the driver’s seat and I don’t mind where she takes me. She’s in full control behind the wheel, there are no bumps in the road, the scenery is gorgeous. I know she’ll handle every curve with aplomb; she’ll never brake too hard. In 2019 the image may no longer be ecologically sound, but I like to think it works  nonetheless.

Not least because in The Dutch House, her eighth novel, cars have a not insignificant role to play. In the book’s opening pages we find the narrator, Danny, and his older sister Maeve parked outside the eponymous house, a mansion not far from Philadelphia, where the pair grew up. It’s the early 1960s, Danny is 15 and just home from his first semester at boarding school; Maeve is seven years older, driving a blue Oldsmobile station wagon given to her by their father. Through the windows they can observe their stepmother, Andrea, turning on the lights as evening draws in; Patchett hints at a kind of exile, but plays her cards close to her chest.

Danny can’t really see into the house, “but memory filled in the picture” with the kind of specific recollection that can only come from longing. Patchett is a master at pacing and detail: why are the brother and sister parked outside in darkness when the house is filled with light? Where is home now? Over and again the pair will find themselves parked – in different years, in different cars – in front of the house, on the outside looking in.

The question of what makes a home pervades this gripping book. It is an examination of the dynamics of an American family in the middle years of the 20th century: Cyril Conroy, Danny and Maeve’s father, is a real-estate developer, buying up houses and buildings, managing structural repairs and, sometimes, the lives of his tenants. Danny and Maeve’s mother, Elna, is absent, the reason for her absence gradually uncovered as the novel progresses. Cyril marries Andrea, who falls in love with the Dutch House – so called after its builders, the VanHoebeeks (“Van Who-bake, mis-pronounced as Van Ho-bik by everyone in Elkins Park”), who had made their fortune selling cigarettes in the run-up to the First World War. Andrea brings her daughters, Norma and Bright, to live in the house and make what is now called a blended family; it’s not giving too much away to say that the blend doesn’t take.

Paired portraits of Mrs and Mrs VanHoebeek hang over the fireplace of the grand house: “The drawing-room VanHoebeeks were the show-stoppers, life-size documentation of people worn by time.” The house – bought lock, stock and barrel by Cyril Conroy after the cigarette business went bad – is full of these portraits of strangers, and their presence in the house and in the book offers the idea of a simulacrum of family. Danny and Maeve are cared for by two servants, Sandy and Jocelyn; Danny never realises the pair are sisters until he is told. “I was asleep to the world,” he says. “Even in my own house I had no idea what was going on.”

This is a novel that makes the reader reflect upon how much anyone ever knows about a family, about the truth of any relationship. Patchett’s great gift is the way she builds intimacy between her characters and the reader. By the end of the book we feel deeply involved in the Conroys’ ordinary extraordinary lives.

Her style is fluid and evocative, whether she is describing the shell of a building in Harlem or Andrea’s brittle fury. If the novel has a flaw, it is perhaps that Andrea fulfils just too much the wicked stepmother role, but then the book is pleasingly scattered with literary allusion. At the novel’s opening, when Danny and Maeve first meet Andrea, Danny is cloistered behind curtains in a window seat, a scene reminiscent of Jane Eyre; Philip Larkin’s poem “Home is so Sad” makes more than one appearance; and the Dutch House itself, in its unchanging beauty, is a kind of strange antithesis to Dickens’s Satis House, Miss Havisham’s crumbling tomb in Great Expectations. Years later the house, Danny writes, is “exactly as I remembered”. Its very stasis is eerie, imprisoning.

This is a fine book, perfectly conveying familial bonds and familial wounds. Ann Patchett gives us a detailed portrait of one particular family; but I’m betting that every reader will find something of the Conroys within themselves. 

The Dutch House 
Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury, 337pp, £18.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos