Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, August 19 to discuss The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. One of Patchett’s strengths is her ability to use setting creatively. Her settings push and pull characters, or they transcend into characters themselves. They are more than the where and when; the setting of each novel is as powerful as the plot, capable of influencing character behavior, affecting dialogue and tone, and shaping reader expectations, beliefs, and biases. Imagine reading Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Magician’s Assistant, or even Truth and Beauty in another setting. These are not stories that could have happened just anywhere, and The Dutch House is no different. In this novel, the titular house (and buildings and architecture at large) takes on a new dimension — it is plot, setting, and character, all three — and also the passion, compulsion, addiction, and dysfunction that drives so much of the book.
As much as Patchett brings the house to life, the characters who live inside are the heart of the story. As one reader put it, “Ann Patchett tells the story of people. You don’t have to try to figure out what will happen, you just flow along.” Like a fairy tale, this book includes housekeepers and cooks, an absent mother, distant father, and evil stepmother, plus a pair of stepsisters. These are the spokes of life around Danny and Maeve, who, though seven years apart in age, align themselves to each other before all else. Together, they navigate what it means to be rich and also peculiar, and then poor, the vindictive blood in their hearts keeping them hotly alive. While their wounds may come from abandonment by their mother or dismissiveness by their stepmother, they park in front of the Dutch House and look at it, all the way through, and believe they are seeing clearly what they have lost.
We talked about the house, and after making a long list of descriptors, we concluded that the house was like two sides of a coin: super light, almost crystalline, and super dark, shadowy and villainous. The novel is circular, with Danny following in his father’s footsteps, repeating history in both his successes and failures. There is a feeling of coming full circle as Maeve’s portrait, an imitation of the grand Dutch VanHoebeek portraits, finds new life in a newer generation. In the push and pull of competition between Danny and his stepsisters, readers feel as if they are watching certain actions around and around again. The circular nature of the story, layered over the house, light and dark, feels like night and day. Death and life. The house is as complicated as any human character in the book; it is beloved by some and hated by others, a source of secrets, and yet the only place in the world that feels truly known. It is a symbol of greed, but also innocence. It’s all jumbled together, like a snowball rolled down a hill, growing larger and larger.
We talked extensively about Elna and how we judged her. Some were baffled by her character, failing to see any love for Cyril, her husband, or her own children. When it came to her leaving the children, some cut her slack because the children were so cared for, even without her. Others had trouble forgiving her. Reflecting on our conversation of Elna, compared to our conversation of Andrea, it’s fascinating how when a mother leaves her family, we feel the need to discuss if she was right or wrong. We feel the need to form an opinion, and then also tease apart what the author’s opinion might be (for the record, we concluded that Patchett portrays Elna’s actions very objectively). We connected Elna’s storyline to Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler.
But Andrea, who spends much more time on the page, and makes decisions that affect the children with more frequency, if not with more force, is not the object of our scrutiny. It would be really interesting to consider if any of Andrea’s decisions — perhaps what she did to Maeve involving the window seat, for example — might have come close to the effect Elna had on her children. Who’s to say that all of Andrea’s slights and wounds might not add up to Elna’s life changing decision? After all, in Maeve and Danny’s minds, Andrea is the evil stepmother. All we had to say about Andrea was that for one reader, she was the favorite character (a “love to hate” character).
This is the only Ann Patchett novel written in first person, and we discussed the experience of relying on Danny, who declares himself early on, “asleep to the world.” We see the influence of parents in this story (good, bad, or indifferent) but we do not get inside their heads. This might have been frustrating at times, but clearly created the perfect balance of mystery and omission to keep us hooked as readers.
While this novel was unanimously enjoyed (our hour-long discussion featured almost no complaints), almost every person in attendance had other Patchett novels they had loved, as well as Patchett novels they had hated. Some loved Run, others hated Run (and so on, with almost every book she’d written). It stands to reason — while Patchett’s signature as an author is consistent, each book has its own flavor. If you read an Ann Patchett book and you’re not sure about it, try another! You just may fall in love. You could also try the audiobook version of The Dutch House, which is not simply “read,” but rather “performed” by none other than Tom Hanks. Indeed, those who listened to the book on audio raved about it, saying that Hanks really disappears into the story. He truly becomes Danny. Sound off in the comments: what’s your favorite (and least favorite) Ann Patchett novel?
‘Ann Patchett: “We’re so embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange”’ by Hannah Beckerman for The Guardian
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
Taft by Ann Patchett
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Run by Ann Patchett
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
What Now? by Ann Patchett
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett