Though Ann Patchett’s novel The Dutch House tells the story of a brother and sister, Danny and Maeve, the real star of the story is the titular estate of their early childhood. The descriptions of it are lavish: the Dutch House “was a singular confluence of talent and luck,” and “seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on.” Its front windows “were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines.”
In fact, the house takes on a sort of mythical quality as the novel progresses, both in the mind of the reader and in the minds of Danny and Maeve. For the two characters, it comes to represent both an idealized version of the childhood that was taken from them, as well as their mutual hatred of the woman who took it from them. The Dutch House was originally purchased at the end of World War II by Danny and Maeve’s father, marking the beginning of his real estate empire. He was not an affectionate man – according to Danny, “the only thing our father really cared about in life was his work: the buildings he built and owned and rented out” – but he thought the house was wonderful. Danny and Maeve’s mother, on the other hand, felt entrapped in this grand home that once belonged to the since-deceased VanHoebeeks, and she left them when Danny was too young to really remember her. Later, their father was remarried to a woman named Andrea who already had two daughters. The pivotal event of the story, however, is that when Danny and Maeve’s father died, Andrea kicked them out of the house. Danny was still in high school, and Maeve was left to be his guardian, and neither of them had any claim to the Dutch House or any of its contents. The only thing left to them was an educational trust fund, which Maeve strategically drains by forcing Danny to go to medical school.
Though it is by all indications a work of historical or realistic fiction (the story inches closer to modern-day as it follows the siblings through adulthood), the enormous character of the Dutch House makes it read almost like a tragic fairy tale of sorts. It is a place of pain and a place of memories, and it nearly overshadows those of the living characters. The Dutch House’s mythical quality is reinforced by Danny and Maeve’s longstanding ritual of sitting in a parked car on the street in front of the house. It takes the whole story for readers to understand the relationship between the house and the two siblings, as well as the relationship between Danny and Maeve. I will not spoil the ending here, but I will say that the novel comes full circle at its conclusion.
The Dutch House is an engrossing novel of loss, relationships, and loyalties, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something thought-provoking and enjoyable to read!