Ann Patchett made this up! Well, duh, you might say — it’s a novel, she’s a fiction writer. And yet what’s striking is how little like fiction it feels, with Danny Conroy telling us about his life as if someone asked: What’s the deal with the Dutch House? So on he goes, explaining why he and his older sister, Maeve, periodically sit in a car on the street with a view of the house he lived in till he was 15, Maeve, eight years older, having already moved on, first to college and then to what turns out to be her lifelong job managing the accounts of a purveyor of frozen vegetables.
“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” he asks her during one of these occasional stakeouts, explaining that “We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
Though Maeve pooh-poohs this (“Is this what they’re teaching you in school?”), Danny has succinctly framed the problem of telling one’s life story, colored as it is by an understanding of how things turned out. His solution, or Patchett’s, is to make the Dutch House a touchstone, the one constant against which his memories can be measured.
The house, built in a suburb of Philadelphia by a wealthy Dutch couple, the VanHoebeeks, whose stern, life-size portraits still preside over the drawing room, exerts a sort of magical power over all of the novel’s inhabitants — not just Maeve and Danny, but the nanny (Fluffy, for her “soft waves of red hair”), left over from the VanHoebeeks’ time and still enraptured by the Gatsbyesque parties of her girlhood; the housekeeper Sandy and her sister, Jocelyn, who take over after Fluffy’s ignominious departure; Maeve and Danny’s mother, wildly sensitive and mildly mad (or, as Sandy contends, a saint), who runs away to India when Danny is 3 (“You went to India to get away from the house?” he asks, incredulous, when she reappears decades later); and Andrea, the evil stepmother incarnate who moves in with her own two young daughters and displaces Maeve and Danny.
Ah, Andrea! Ah, mysterious, missing mother! For all its memoiristic feel — the meetings and marriages, curious incidents, explanations and missed chances, as Danny goes to medical school but then to work, like his father, in real estate, always under the watchful eye of his beloved motherly Maeve — the story has the makings of a fairy tale: the exiled children, the enchanted house, a touch of Cinderella, a hint of Hansel and Gretel.
And squaring off at the heart of either, life story or fairy tale, are the lessons of absence and loss: how to love what’s gone, and what remains.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches and coaches through the Loft Literary Center website.
The Dutch House
By: Ann Patchett.
Publisher: Harper, 337 pages, $27.99.
Event: Pen Pals, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 11 a.m. Oct. 25, Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins.