January 2020 – The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
A book that is a compelling read but has unsympathetic characters is difficult to explain. It seems counter-intuitive that both attributes reside between the same covers. The Dutch House by author Ann Patchett is one such book, and Zion’s readers delved into its story as their January selection. It is billed as a dark fairy tale of two siblings born into wealth and privilege who lose it all when an evil step-mother casts a spell over their otherwise astute father and has him add her name to all his assets. The father conveniently dies and, in true stereotypical fashion, the children are tossed to the curb essentially penniless. How this separation from their childhood home affects their personalities, relationship with each other, and relationships with friends and acquaintances is the purported theme of the story.
The narrator of the story is Danny Conroy, who with his older sister, Maeve, lived in The Dutch House in Elkins Park outside Philadelphia. Their father, who gradually established a real estate empire after World War II through buying foreclosed properties and renting them, bought the house (which, in a bizarre twist, happened to be furnished right down to portraits of prior owners on the walls) and presented it to their mother as a surprise. Mr. Conroy viewed it as proof of his position in society; his wife, a deeply religious woman (who somehow was easily persuaded to leave her vocation as a prospective nun to marry him), was offended by the ostentatiousness of the house and could not escape her conscience in its large rooms. When their elevated position also produced a nanny and cook, Mrs. Conroy slowly faded away from family life. She eventually spent more time away than home and finally disappeared completely. Mr. Conroy told Maeve and Danny that she had died and began to withdraw also into his business. Maeve, at seven years older than Danny and dealing with her own diabetes, assumed the role of protector and mentor and, from Danny’s perspective, life went on comfortably although he never had very close friends.
This comfortable existence changed with the advent of Andrea and her daughters. Mr. Conroy married Andrea without considering his own children, and she began a systematic takeover of the house. Maeve could escape as she left for college; Danny tried out for the basketball team, went along with his father to collect rents on the weekends, and spent as much time away as he could. With their father’s death, Maeve and Danny found that their step-mother’s takeover was more extensive than they could have imagined. The only money she had not gotten total control of was an education fund which had to provide first for Danny and then Andrea’s daughters. From their shared apartment, Maeve instantly seized on the chance to deprive Andrea of this money and pushed Danny into an expensive college and eventually medical school. During this time, they often drove back to the Elkins Park neighborhood and parked down the street from their old house, watched Andrea and the girls, and discussed their loss.
While their world had truly been turned upside down, Maeve’s obsession with the unfair circumstances, and her constant reinforcement of the unfairness in Danny’s mind meant that neither moved on. Maeve, with a math degree, found a job with a frozen food company where she could basically rule the office without truly testing her skills. Danny, a good student, hated every minute of med school and longed to establish himself in real estate. Their emotional growth was non-existent. Neither knew how to open themselves to others and establish relationships. When they are finally presented with a truth that tears open their remembered childhood, the siblings are suddenly at odds. Can two co-dependent people move on to independence? Can they learn to share their lives successfully with others?
Zion’s readers found The Dutch House easy to read although slow at spots. We kept waiting for something to happen. The author’s descriptions of the household help interested us, but we still wished for more conciseness, for sympathetic characters, and believable actions. Why would you keep all the contents of a house, including pictures of prior owners, and not get rid of things and make the house your own? How would a pious mother of two young children willingly leave them? Why would anyone go through medical school with no plans to practice medicine? How can you sustain vindictiveness over a decade? At times, we wanted to slap Maeve and Danny because they were so irritating. And yet, the book was certainly readable.
In our discussion, we learned from a member who grew up near the Elkins Park area that the suburb was developed and populated by Dutch and then Jewish, newly wealthy families whose sons and daughters would not have been welcome at the private schools in the Philadelphia area in the early 1900’s due to bigotry. They started their own schools, and the area grew. The large houses such as The Dutch House are still the norm with many Jewish people who hold dual Israeli citizenship living there.
We also had members who were cheated of rightful inheritances. They could more easily relate to Maeve’s motivation to spend as much of the educational fund as possible. As one said, “I kiss every check I write to the nursing home for my parent’s care since that is money my brother will never touch.” Which sparked the observation by another member “Can you hate anyone as much as you can hate family?” Evidently, while seriously irritating, the author’s characters were hitting close to home.
Based on personal experience of some of our members, it is not unusual to find medical school and law school graduates who never practice their professions. Often, they have been pressured by parents into those careers, and that is always a big mistake. While it is tempting to think that parents choosing a child’s profession is a relic of the 18th and 19th centuries, some cultures today still favor the practice. Which means a lot of unhappy people!
What the book made perfectly clear is how very important a loving childhood is to mature emotional development. It has been proven in studies that a young person who does not learn to develop peer relationships at a young age is missing part of their essential emotional development. It was so obvious throughout the book that Maeve and Danny were damaged, but was it permanent? Danny obviously patterned himself on his father to the point of buying his then-wife a house without her input. Did Maeve cut herself off from a close relationship because of her diabetes or in unconscious imitation of her mother? Their co-dependence was so great that one reader said Danny’s wife felt that if Maeve sneezed, Danny would have wiped her nose. Could they learn to let go of each other and of the anger so they could open themselves to others? Without giving away the plot twists (for anyone who might want to read the book), the final pages of the novel explore these questions before it abruptly ends. Our readers thought it might have been a better read if it had turned out that Maeve’s and Danny’s father and mother had never divorced, and bigamy caused the fortune to be returned to them. Or perhaps they would have simply been more sympathetic characters.
The importance of The Dutch House is questionable. While the book blurb and reviews make much of the actual building, it seemed to our readers that the focus on the house went overboard. It was a nice house, but so what? Details like a ballroom on the third floor are true – that was commonly done in mansions, including some in our area – but we eventually tired of hearing about the house. The ongoing tragedy of the characters’ lives was not caused by the house but by the inability of people to communicate with each other on an emotional level.
Speaking of communication, evidently listening to this book on cd’s can be a totally different experience from reading it yourself! Tom Hanks is the narrator and his talents bring more empathy and sympathy to all the characters, thus improving the story.
Our readers’ votes indicate their difficulty in reconciling unsympathetic characters with a good read, and they rated The Dutch House in this way: one reader give it 1 thumb down, four were neutral, one gave it a knuckle up, and 6 gave it 1 thumb up. Ann Patchett is a very popular author, but our neutral readers felt they would not read another of her works based on this one. Our six who voted 1 thumb up were more sanguine.
In February, we leave fiction for a memoir, visiting Frank McCourt’s Irish Catholic childhood in Angela’s Ashes.