“The Dutch House,” Harper, by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s latest novel, “The Dutch House,” takes place in Pennsylvania as suburbia infringes on the land surrounding the Dutch House, built by the VanHoebeeks, a Dutch couple, in the 1920s.
Maeve and Danny Conroy grow up in this mansion, but are abruptly turned out by their stepmother after their father dies. This paradise lost underscores the lives of the two siblings as they make their way without their previous wealth or security. Alone in the world, the two Conroys rely on each other. Maeve, already a college graduate, continues her mothering of Danny, who becomes a doctor but elects to follow his father’s path: real estate.
Their father, Cyril, a self-made real estate mogul, bought the place after World War II as a surprise for his first wife, Elna, who didn’t even know they were rich. The house horrified her, and she eventually abandoned the family and the house to work with the poor in India. This abandonment scars the Conroy children for most of their lives, just as much as being booted from the house. Andrea, who replaces Elna, only seems interested in the Dutch House and her new husband’s money.
Danny and Maeve park outside the Dutch House for years, every couple of months, contemplating their lives and what they’ve lost (and what they’ve gained), and these exchanges may be the most rewarding parts of the book. “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actual was?” Danny asks his sister while sitting outside the Dutch House. This relationship demonstrates how even love within the smallest of families can be a source of resilience.
Patchett’s storytelling abilities shine in this gratifying novel, particularly as she moves toward the surprising and delightful conclusion.
It’s important to note, though, that architectural history fans may feel a little slighted if they were drawn to the title looking for a story about an old vernacular Dutch house. The mansion is a hodgepodge of styles named for its inhabitants’ lineage with a few blue delft mantels “pried out of a castle in Utrecht.”