Book of the Month: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

Critical Evaluation

“It takes guts to write a fairy tale these days. No P.R. blurb is complete without the descriptors ‘searing,’ ‘probing,’ ‘challenging’ or the like. The use of destabilizing narrative techniques (which often force critics to either include spoilers or to be oblique in order to avoid them) is so prevalent as to seem almost de rigueur. At a moment when everything in the world feels on the verge of falling apart, there seems to be a widespread cultural expectation (in the West, anyway) that serious art — the kind worthy of respect, in books, television, film or theater — is gonna make you sweat, that it should make you sweat.

“Ann Patchett doesn’t want to make you sweat. She wants to make you care. As she explained in a 2016 profile in The Guardian, ‘I’ve been writing the same book my whole life — that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.’ In ‘The Dutch House,’ the family is built both by blood and by love. And isn’t that what fairy tales are made of? This novel takes a winding road through the forest and doesn’t rush to a finish, nor is the ending wholly surprising. But if you allow yourself to walk along with Patchett, you’ll find riches at the end of the trail. And you won’t end up shoved into an oven.”

Southgate, Maria. The New York Times Book Review.Ann Patchett Spins a Modern Fairy Tale in Her Luminous New Novel.” September 24, 2019.

First Excerpt

“ ‘The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. “Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,’ she said.

‘Is it a work friend?’ Maeve asked. She was older and so had a more complex understanding of friendship.

Sandy considered the question.’I’d say not. Where’s your brother?’

‘Window seat,’ Maeve said.

Sandy had to pull the draperies back to find me. ‘Why do you have to close the drapes?’

I was reading.’Privacy,’ I said, though at eight I had no notion of privacy. I liked the word, and I liked the boxed-in feel the draperies gave when they were closed.

As for the visitor, it was a mystery. Our father didn’t have friends, at least not the kind who came to the house late on a Saturday afternoon. I left my secret spot and went to the top of the stairs to lie down on the rug that covered the landing. I knew from experience I could see into the drawing room by looking between the newel post and first baluster if I was on the floor. There was our father in front of the fireplace with a woman, and from what I could tell they were studying the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek. I got up and went back to my sister’s room to make my report.

‘It’s a woman,’ I said to Maeve. Sandy would have known this already.

Sandy asked me if I’d brushed my teeth, by which she meant had I brushed them that morning. No one brushed their teeth at four o’clock in the afternoon. Sandy had to do everything herself because Jocelyn had Saturdays off. Sandy would have laid the fire and answered the door and offered drinks and, on top of all of that, was now responsible for my teeth. Sandy was off on Mondays. Sandy and Jocelyn were both off on Sundays because my father didn’t think people should be made to work on Sundays.

‘I did,’ I said, because I probably had.

‘Do it again,’ she said. ‘And brush your hair.’ ”


Second Excerpt

“I will always believe that Andrea’s face fell for an instant when she looked at Maeve and me. Even if my father hadn’t mentioned his children, she would have known he had them. Everyone in Elkins Park knew what went on in the Dutch House. Maybe she thought we would stay upstairs. She’d come to see the house, after all, not the children. Or maybe the look on Andrea’s face was just for Maeve, who, at fifteen and in her tennis shoes, was already a head taller than Andrea in her heels. Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent she was going to be taller than all the other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulders-back might as well have been her name. For years he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself. Even I could see how she might have been intimidating: her height, the shining black wall of hair, the way she would lower her eyes to look at a person rather than bend her neck. But at eight I was still comfortably smaller than the woman our father would later marry. I held out my hand to shake her little hand and said my name, then Maeve did the same. Though the story will be remembered that Maeve and Andrea were at odds right from the start, that wasn’t true. Maeve was perfectly fair and polite when they met, and she remained fair and polite until doing so was no longer possible.”