Ann Patchett at her best takes an ordinary world and makes it unfamiliar, odd and intriguing. That’s how The Dutch House feels from the beginning.
Danny Conroy and his sister Maeve live in a wonderful and unique house in small-town Pennsylvania, the Dutch House of the title. It was built by a Mr and Mrs VanHoebeek to their own specification, and everywhere there are reminders of their idiosyncratic taste, not least two huge portraits of them which still grace the drawing room.
The children are without a mother and are brought up by an emotionally absent father, who grew up poor in Brooklyn but has mysteriously made his fortune in property. Danny and Maeve are incredibly close. Maeve is seven years older than Danny and has taken on a maternal role. She is also the keeper of the few memories they have of their mother.
Then one day, their father returns home with Andrea, young, blonde, petite, everything Maeve (and by inference their mother) is not. Eventually she marries their father and brings her two young daughters to live with them. From then on Danny and Maeve are gradually pushed out from the family and, eventually, their home.
This is a brilliant set up. It has a mythical quality – the motherless children, the aloof father, the wicked stepmother and usurping stepsisters. At its heart is the idea of a home that you can never return to, a home that is much more than a physical house. Even so, the house itself looms over everything, a character in its own right, one infused with the spirit of its former owners, forcing us to ask whether anyone ever really own a home, its memories, its myths.
However, from this magical start, I felt the book descended into ordinariness. There is the coming-of-age of Danny, the odd decisions he makes about his career, under the influence of Maeve rather than his own ambitions. There is the way neither of them are able to move on from their childhood loss, and continue to drive to the house, just to sit outside and look at it. Both these things are just about believable, and everything moves along nicely enough, but I didn’t feel completely immersed in the story as I did at the start.
Eventually, the novel comes full circle. We learn the truth about Danny’s mother and he confronts his past, with the help of the family’s loyal and loving former servants (fairy godmothers?).
If this book had been written by another author, I would have said it was fine. As it is, I must admit I’m a little disappointed. It feels like the opening of the book asks big questions, but the end answers smaller ones.