The Dutch House is a novel that has a fairy tale vibe to it. The house is, of course, central to the story and it’s kind of like a castle — it has a history of its own and a presence in the community. The Dutch House is a sign of wealth and a connection to the main characters’ past. Author Ann Patchett also gives the reader an evil stepmother, a missing queen, and a father/king who seems caught up in his material wealth while his children must fight for themselves. The question is, what is the monster they must fight? Is it their stepmother or is it the house or is it the pain of having been abandoned? The novel focuses on children Maeve and Danny Conroy, telling the story of their life and of the Dutch House through Danny’s eyes. His perspective is interesting because he is nine years younger than Maeve, he has no memory of his mother, and he shares striking similarities to his father. Through Danny’s journey, told in three parts, the reader goes from a privileged but cold childhood, to his and his sister’s exile from the Dutch House, to a confrontation and resolution of their family drama.
The first part of the novel opens with the introduction of the “evil stepmother” Andrea. The time is the 1950’s. Maeve is a teenager and Danny is about 8. Their mother Elna has been gone many years, having left her husband and children to go to India. Mr. Conroy is a real estate maven, and the Dutch House is his pride and joy. He is a cold man and didn’t seem particularly interested in Andrea, but Andrea is persistent. She adores the Dutch House and what it stands for, and she manages to get herself married to Mr. Conroy, bringing her own two small daughters in tow. Andrea never warms up to her stepchildren, and the bond between Maeve and Danny only grows stronger. Maeve is the one who remembers Elna and the past; she is very protective of Danny and will be his closest friend and confidant for the rest of their lives. Danny and Maeve are not friendless in the house though. The servants Sandy and Jocelyn, who were hired by Elna, are protective of them both and remember Elna with fondness and regard. They dislike Andrea as much as the kids do, and, along with a former servant known as Fluffy, act occasionally as fairy godmothers to Danny and Maeve. Mr. Conroy could care less about any of this. He is focused on his real estate ventures, and on Saturdays brings young Danny along to visit his properties, collect rent and do odd jobs. While Danny doesn’t have a closeness to his father, he does share the man’s interest in buildings and ownership. He fully expects to follow along in the family business.
Once Maeve starts college (where she performs brilliantly), tensions at home escalate. Andrea acts in not so subtle ways to displace Maeve and promote her own little girls. Danny tries to get along but misses his sister terribly. When he is pulled from class one day in high school, he is panicked at the thought that something has happened to Maeve, only to see her in the office and discover that their father has died. This leads to conflict with Andrea and in Part II, Danny’s exile from the Dutch House. Sandy and Jocelyn are also fired but maintain loyalty and close ties to Danny and Maeve. Maeve steps in to raise Danny, but she also has a plan to get revenge on Andrea, which involves sending Danny to the best schools and getting him to attend medical school, even though this is not the future Danny had envisioned for himself.
Once exiled from the Dutch House, Maeve and Danny will return many times over the years to sit in Maeve’s car on the street outside the house. They watch and they remember, but they do not move on from their hurt and resentment. Danny marries and has children, and he abandons a career as a doctor in order to pursue his love of property ownership and management. Yet the past keeps nipping at his heels. Fluffy passes along information to Danny that she is afraid to tell Maeve, and Danny’s reaction is to suppress it. But in Part III, the truth comes out, threatening the most important relationships in Danny’s life.
There are a lot of plot aspects to this story that I find fascinating but will not discuss because of the spoiler potential. I will say that Patchett homes in on “traditional” roles for men and women, the acceptance of certain behaviors from men that seem to be absolutely inexcusable and unforgivable in women, and the cluelessness of men. Throughout the book, Danny is constantly finding out about things that he misread or completely missed all together. His journey to understanding and reconciliation is long and painful. I found the ending to this story to be quite uplifting and really enjoyed the novel overall. The cover is also just gorgeous — a painting of Maeve as a child that is featured in the story.