Sibling love, a broken family all revolved around The Dutch House.
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2019, 337 pages
Wow. This is one of the best sibling stories ever. AND, it's an excellent dysfunctional family story. Danny and Maeve, the brother and sister of the novel, (she's 7 years older) forge an unbreakable bond as they struggle through the abandonment by their mom, their dad's second wife, dad's death, and their effort to just survive.
"The story of my sister was the only one I was ever meant to tell."
An excited young man buys his family an elaborate, beautiful mansion as a surprise. A surprise his wife doesn't like and doesn't want, so she ultimately leaves the family. The dad withdraws from the kids and basically ignores them. He eventually remarries a woman with two young girls who marries him as much for his house, the Dutch House, as for himself.
As the adult narrator, Danny explores his memories of the house, of leaving the house, of the man his father was and what he learned from him. Maeve never stops grieving for her lost mom, raging against the fates, trying to understand. The memory flashbacks as he and his sister Maeve relive their childhood in the Dutch House and what that specific house has grown to represent to them form the backbone of the story. The house looms in every memory, in every decision, in every story, wrapped in all the anger and loneliness and ..... all the feelings of their lives.
"We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father."
At Maeve's insistence and because Danny's loved her so much, he goes to college to become a doctor even though he has no interest in the profession (ultimately he chooses another path -inspired by his father). I think this next quote probably has a lot of truth to it:
"You wouldn't think a person could succeed in something as difficult as medicine without wanting to do it, but it turned out I was part of a long and noble tradition of self-subjugation. I would guess at least half the students in my class would rather have been anywhere else. We were fulfilling the expectations that had been set for us: the sons of doctors were expected to be doctors so as to honor the tradition; the sons of immigrants were expected to become doctors in order to make a better life for the families ...."
Then, there is Andrea, the second wife. She's given the classic role of the evil stepmother but the one flaw in the story is that with all the other excellent characters, Andrea's back story wasn't complete enough - I never really got a sense of why she had such antipathy to Danny and Maeve or her motivations in general. She is a fairly central character because the story circles back around to her, but I feel like that one piece of the story is missing.
Patchett writes with such clarity, such strength, that every character is intensely realized (except maybe Andrea). It's such a heartfelt story of sibling love and support, of their unwavering commitment to each other. As adults they continue to take care of each other through a marriage and health issues and, just life. All wrapped up in that support and caring is also a lot of feeding each other's discontent, anger, and disappointment about their parents, the house, and the stepmom. So MANY emotions, so much family history to sort through.
"Everything was perfect!', she said [Maeve]. Could you believe it? I don't know what I was expecting, but I didn't think it was going to look better after we left. I always imagined the house would die without us. I don't know, I thought it would crumple up. Do houses ever die of grief?"
An excellent, well told page-turner of a story that is highly recommended. Yes, a good book club read, but also just a great exploration of family relationships for anyone to enjoy.
photo NYC brownstone, NiklasHerrmann @ unsplash.com