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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Dutch House: So Much Story, Such Good Writing

Everyone's done this: Walked into a room they haven't been in since childhood, and marveled at how small it seems now, compared with how big it seemed in their memory. This effect is the result of the haziness of nostalgia, how nostalgia sort of warps memories, and how much present circumstances influence the way we see the past. Ann Patchett has built her wonderful, propulsive new novel, The Dutch House, around this idea of the trickiness of memory.

The Dutch House is at once a 50-year family saga, and a sort of "dark fairy tale," complete with a modern-day evil stepmother. Siblings Maeve and Danny grow up in a fancy old house in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the mid-1950s (or so). Their mother leaves them at a young age, with no explanation. Danny doesn't remember her, but Maeve (seven years older than Danny) does, and this abandonment is a specter that haunts Maeve both physically and emotionally her whole life.

Years later, their father remarries. But their stepmother Andrea is pure evil, and manipulates their father into including her on all his financial holdings, including the Dutch House, and his successful real estate business. It's not long before Andrea kicks teenaged Danny out of the house and essentially cuts him and Maeve off. So Danny has to move in with Maeve who has just graduated from college, and the two begin a long process of navigating life, as once-wealthy and now-on-their-own adults.

Everything that happens for the rest of the siblings' lives is a direct result of this childhood/young adult upheaval and how they remember things slightly differently. The two siblings maintain an incredibly close bond their entire lives, even as their lives branch — Maeve staying near home and Danny making a life for himself in New York City. And that's the meat of this novel — how do they overcome their pasts? And more specifically, how do their differing memories of the past inform their current and future relationship? Really fascinating questions.

Patchett is her usual captivating self in this novel. Her writing tugs you along in the way of all remarkably talented writers: You don't even realize you're reading. Ever since I read and loved State of Wonder, and then some of her backlist, Patchett is always a must-read for me, and this novel is absolutely one of her best. I loved it. There is so much story here.

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