The Dutch House by Ann Patchett


Having just recalled the four books by Ann Patchett that I’ve read, I can say this one fits right in. The characters are fantastical but irresistible, the most hateful become toothless, sometimes literally, and the setting is everything. In this one, the book is even named for the setting.

The Dutch House was built by the VanHoebeek family; when they died, everything they owned remained in the mansion and much of it remained for the 50 years recounted in the book. Thus the house always seemed to be theirs, particularly as their large portraits remained in the drawing room. The house, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, was purchased by Cyril Conroy, a poor man from Brooklyn who made money in real estate and bought it as a surprise for his wife. She was not only surprised, but horrified as she apparently preferred the life of a saintly caretaker to the poor to living with her husband and two children in a mansion.

The siblings, Maeve and Danny, become very close by necessity when their mother left and later when the evil stepmother took over. Maeve is enough older that she can both take care of Danny and later use him to torment the evil stepmother. Their intensely loving connection, as told by the narrator Dan, is lifelong.

Dan tells us the story beginning with his earliest memories when he was four from the point of view of the adult. He does this with only the occasional foreshadowing, so the tale unfolds as it happened. Dan reveals his shortcomings, his kindness, the extent to which his actions reflect his father.

The narrator in this audiobook was Tom Hanks and throughout I noted his influence on how I saw the character and story. From the outset I was struck by his confidence and assurance. It seemed to me that he read as he acts, with assurance that he is the character. Other readers are less assured, and therefore let the words stand more on their own. Lovely as it was to hear Tom Hanks for those hours, I believe the book suffered for it.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House, Harper, 2019, 352 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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