The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – book review

Ann Patchett is the kind of novelist we’d all like to be – successful, award-winning, a nice person by all accounts, and she writes a bloody good book.

I read Commonwealth last year with no expectations, and found myself engrossed in a family saga. Well here’s another one – The Dutch House, every bit as satisfying. Warning: spoilers ahead.  

Why the ‘Dutch House’?  Good question. I read it as something to do with the Presbyterianism of the Dutch immigrants who built the house, and the Catholicism of the Conroy family who try and occupy it. This divergence sets up the narrative arc of the book – they’re never the right fit. It sets the scene for the themes Patchett explores: self-awareness and finding our place in the world, service and honour and justice.

It’s a house of glass, too, both literally and figuratively, and this seemed like the central metaphor for the book. The father buys it as a trophy for his wife. But with its glass configuration allowing people to see right through it during the daytime and right into it when the lights are on at night, and with the sunlight turning it into a hothouse during the day, the family has nowhere to hide; the heat and spotlight is on them.

Towards the end of the book I realised how many of the characters are in service to others, and this seemed to fit with their Catholicism; is there a doctrine of service to others? There’s Elna being saintly; Maeve spending her life in service at Ottersen’s; Sandy and Jocelyn in service to the family; Fluffy in service to three families consecutively, the Van Hoebeeks, the Conroys and then Danny’s family; Celeste in service to Danny, and Norma becomes a paediatric oncologist, for heaven’s sake. The only one not in service to anyone, who refuses his role as doctor despite all his training, is Danny, who instead follows his father’s footsteps into real estate.

It was so apt the way Danny took after his father. It was subtly done too, when he buys a house for Celeste and presents it as a fait accompli, just as his father has presented the Dutch House to Elna. There’s no indication that he ever realises what he’s done, and the irony, that he’s visiting the sins of his father on his own wife.

Celeste is an exceptional wife, and I couldn’t help thinking I’d like one like her. I’ve sometimes attempted to be one, and failed, and then decided it’s a mug’s game anyway. But I’d like one, my god it would be helpful.

Someone on Instagram said they hadn’t enjoyed the fairy tale structure of the book, and I’ve puzzled over this. It’s true there’s a wicked stepmother, and two stepsisters, but beyond that, I don’t see it.

I loved the way Celeste’s re-telling of the way she and Danny met and all the coincidences that led to it  – the chemistry book on the train, the timetable – foreshadows the coincidences that lead to Danny’s getting the means to buy his first building – the meal with Dr Able at which he mentions his wife’s winning the funding for a new science building, Danny’s figuring out of the only spot where that building can go. Perhaps it’s about how ordinary events shape our lives in large ways, and that both Celeste and Danny realise this and jump on their opportunity.

I thought the appraisal of Celeste’s options as a young woman in the seventies who had done her degree but didn’t actually have many real work options yet, was neatly and realistically done and a nice bit of social documentary.

It was frustrating but felt so real, seeing the constant pushing that characters do of one another, to realise each other’s dreams: Celeste wants Danny to be a doctor; Danny wants Maeve to do better than her job at Ottersen’s; Maeve forces Danny to do all that study, in the name of revenge.

She’s a great writer, Patchett, not just in the themes she explores but in the matter of writing as well. There’s not a word out of place; it’s taut, just descriptive enough, and intensely readable. From a writer’s point of view, she uses a classic technique: there are very few adverbs, and this brings about the clean, uncluttered nature of her text.

With all these complex themes running through it, this would be a great book club book, and I’ve enjoyed picking them out and noting them down as I read. Even better, I’ve been wrapped up in the story and the characters for days, and that’s the best kind of reading there is.

Fiona Stocker sits in the Australian bush

About Fiona Stocker

If you’d like to read more of my writing, you might like to try Apple Island Wife – Slow Living in Tasmania.

If you’re a writer, and would like constructive help improving your writing, you can find out more about my Manuscript Assessment services here.

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