Books that follow a set of characters over decades (in this case a span of 50-ish years) and allow the reader to watch lives unfold from childhood to adulthood are fascinating to me. I appreciate the time spent to grow with them and to see how and why they become who they are. Combine that with the succinct, marvelous, heart-wrenching prose that Patchett dishes out and I am invested.
When Cyril Conroy purchases a mansion outside of Philadelphia as a surprise for his wife, Elna, and their young daughter, Maeve, the move from an apartment in Brooklyn to an estate in the Pennsylvania countryside is jolting. The so-called “Dutch House,” teems with the remnants of the former owners, the affluent VanHoebeek family. Portraits of the patriarch and matriarch of the family loom above the fireplace and cupboards overflow with their belongings. Cyril’s wife Elna, ashamed of the excess, never feels comfortable in the house. Explained away as a need to rest, Elna begins disappearing from the “Dutch House” for days at a time. When their second child, Danny, is 3 years old, Elna leaves her husband and children to help the poor in India. She does not return.
Cyril buries himself in his real estate business and leaves the care of his children to the housekeeper and cook, but it is Maeve, who is 7 years older, that carries the weight of raising her younger brother. Several years later, their father remarries a woman with two of her own young children, and no interest in raising any more.
The novel follows Maeve and Danny throughout their lives. The shadows of their distant father, absent mother and vindictive step-mother always just behind them. Their childhood home becomes a confusing mixture of comfort and abandonment. Well into adulthood, neither is ever ready to remove themselves completely from the tether of the “Dutch House.”
It’s a interesting story about who we understand ourselves to be versus the person we present. How circumstance and heredity guide our motivations and how family histories are variable and subject to the relator’s perspective.
Patchett is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. When I’m reading one of her novels, I am often caught by a particular sentence that sneaks up and takes my breath away. She has a knack for gently poking the tender spots that persist into adulthood. The little bruises left over by disappointment in ourselves or in the ones we love.