Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I’ve heard of Ann Patchett but hadn’t read any of her novels until now, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get started. And I really liked the book cover and was intrigued by the title as well. Having read this novel, I’m sure it won’t be the last of the author’s books I read.
Although most reviews are positive, some readers who are familiar with her previous novels felt disappointed, while others loved it as much, if not more, as her previous work. As I said, I have nothing to compare it with, but I enjoyed it. I loved the characters (most of all), I loved the setting, and the writing, that can be lyrical, touching, and humorous in turns.
This is the story of a family, or, to be precise, of two siblings and the people they meet along the way. Maeve and Danny become a family-unit through unfortunate (and at times bizarre) circumstances. Their mother leaves when Danny, the younger of the two, is only three years old, and Maeve becomes his sister/mother/life coach/career advisor and many more things. Their father, Cyril, a real estate magnate, is consumed by his business and never explains much, either about his background, their mother, or the house, the Dutch House of the title. When he marries Andrea, who has two daughters of her own, things change, and when he dies, things take an even more dramatic turn.
The story, such as it is, is narrated in the first person by Danny, who claims to have intended to tell the story of his sister (a rather extraordinary individual I’d love to meet in real life), but he realised that this could not be done in isolation from his own and from that of many others who had also played parts in the events they might not have been fully aware of at the time. Although there is an overall chronological order to the novel, Danny’s memory sometimes circles back and forth to moments or events that are related or linked, at least in his mind, to what he is thinking or talking about at the time. He explores the memories around the Dutch House (a seemingly mysterious place although things don’t go in the direction readers might expect), and how the different people seem to have contrasting versions of what went on and totally different feelings about it as well. Was their mother a saint, or a heartless woman who abandoned her children in her eagerness to help unknown others? Was Andrea a greedy woman (the wicked stepmother of fairy tales) who married their father for his money and then threw them out? Or did she truly love him and resented them for their connection to him? Was Maeve domineering and manipulative or selfless and generous? Why didn’t Danny’s wife, Celeste, and his sister get on? What power did the Dutch House have over its inhabitants?
As I have already mentioned, I loved the characters. Although we don’t get to know all of them completely (this is the story Danny is telling, and at times he can be remarkably lacking in insight and even curiosity), that is part of the charm of the story. This would make a great novel for book clubs, as there is much to discuss, and I am sure different readers will have totally different opinions on the characters and their possible motives and/or justifications. Interpretations are left open, and although there is an end (yes, a happy ending of sorts), the ending does not necessarily provide an explanation for everything that happens, at least not a definitive one. As is the case in real life, people are unknowable, and even those we think we know best can surprise us at times.
I also loved the house. The similarities to a fairy tale are mentioned in the description and in many of the reviews, and perhaps because we first see the house from the perspective of a little boy, there is something magical about it. There are secret drawers, paintings of previous owners, gold leaf decorations, hidden storage places, and the house seems to hold an ongoing influence over those who’ve ever lived or worked there. I would love to visit it, and the combination of grand mansion and some of the characteristics of a gothic castle work well and give it a strong personality, although it might not live up to everybody’s expectations.
I have read some of the negative comments, and I do understand them and don’t necessarily disagree with the points they make, although I feel they don’t detract from the novel. Some people note that there is no plot or story behind it and complain that it is slow. This is a family saga, and as such there is no conventional plot or a great revelation (there are quite a few secrets and misunderstandings that get cleared out, but that is not the same) at the end. Because this is a book about memory, family life, growing older, and forgiveness, it is not a straightforward narration or a page-turner where the main point is to keep the action moving. Life happens at its own pace; there are funny moments, sad moments, enlightening moments, inspiring ones, and disappointments as well. The writing is compelling, but people who love stories full of action and a quick pace should not attempt this novel, unless they are willing to try something different. Some readers also complain that some of the storylines are unrealistic… Well, this is a novel, and I’ve read some that required a much higher degree of suspension of disbelief than this one, but I am sure realism is not what the author was after.
I loved this novel and would recommend it to readers who appreciate a focus on character, beautiful writing, and some touches of magic and are fond of the adult fairy-tale. As usual, I recommend readers who aren’t sure if they’d enjoy it or not, to try a book sample and see how they feel. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s stories in the future. I have the feeling that they won’t disappoint.