Everyone’s been raving about Ann Patchett and her fabulous books. A few years ago I had heard of her Bel Canto, how well-received it was, making waves in literary circles, and I had marked the book down for a later read. But then I recently picked her The Dutch House instead, trusting my instincts of trusting an old school-friend’s recommendation! The avid and discerning reader that she is, I often blindly follow her suggestions. And I was amply rewarded.
What a page turner! I was hooked from the start, read voraciously through, and was so satisfied in the end that I had a huge smile plastered on my face. Patchett has the masterly knack of grabbing her reader from the first word onward and she simply doesn’t let go.
Spanning years and generations, the tale is told simply. All in the voice of Danny Conroy, the son born to the Dutch House, his memories of his childhood in it, the family that cocooned him within, his sudden eviction with the ensuing painful missing,and then the settled nostalgia tinctured with a selective rosiness that grows deeper as the years pass, colouring both home and family. The story goes back and forth in time, a memory there, a present day occurrence here, all patched together as in a richly hued and textured quilt, and we watch it take shape and substance as our Danny boy comes of age, grows to be independent, settles in his choice of profession and partner, raises a family of his own. All with the Dutch House of his earliest years remaining firmly in his sights.
The descriptions of the house are wonderfully evocative, its massive glass doors that allow the blinding sunlight to dazzle through, its spacious rooms and stairs, its hiding spaces and caches and corners, the pool at the back with petals and leaves skimming across its shimmering surface, the grass and trees and path out front, rolling down to the street that marked the address. You see the structurerise before your eyes, you go on a tour within and marvel at the paintings here and the chandelier there, the tapestry and the secret alcoves, you hear the voices whispering or laughing or quarrelling, you feel the warmth that nestles in its kitchen, you cringe at the unpleasantness that comes to fruit in it.Patchett builds its history carefully, when and how it was constructed by its original Dutch owners, why and how it changed hands, all against a backdrop ofevents unfolding around the world, stamping time and date.
The Conroy family coming in from their skeletally humble roots, struggle to adjust to the sudden leap in lifestyle, acclimatising themselves to an unfamiliar grandeur, straining somewhat to be happy in the imposing environs. The mother remains overwhelmed by the aura and proportions of her new house, mystified by the sudden shift in fortunes. The taciturn father relishes and cherishes it all as the icing of his well-earned cake. The children torn between the two, make the place their own, marking their own territories within, etching their rights to it, only to have them frustratingly effaced, stumped by the lot that cruelly became theirs. The pretender to its ownership and her guile and wiles, her mean-spiritedness, ruthlessness. The house staff, all strongly supportive women that battle through unflinchingly, their raising of the children, teaching them values, patience, commitment, solidarity and a lot else. The intense loyalty between the siblings, Danny and Maeve, a knowing in their gut that they would always have each other, even if the world around them were to crumble away. Maeve leading the way in all that they plot, plan and do, making good their lack of resources with oodles of her own fiery gumption. And Danny following faithfully, believing in her implicitly, pressing pause on his own dreams to fructify hers. It’s such a riveting tale of circumstance and experience, all so heartfelt and earnest, that it feels lived and breathed, endured and borne, lost and hated, won and vindicated.
I especially liked how Patchett’s writing changes from Danny’s childhood to boyhood, on to adulthood and then middle age. There is an innocence that surrenders to instinctive animal wisdom in his perspective as a child, a clear idea of what his needs are and who fulfils them and how. That changes as the years roll by, circumstances change and much is lost and learned. The voice becomes clearer, stronger, there is a concretisation of views and values, a defensiveness that underscores attachments, that accommodates one parent’s eccentricities, though obdurately denying the other’s theirs. All subsequent attachments remain peripheral to the central sustaining bond with his sister. And then the writing becomes brisk, as if there is an urgency to grow up, do things, finish this, move to that, regain all that had been lost. There is a brusqueness too, not unseemly, for he is recounting the years when he no longer wanted to get trapped by others’ agendas and vendettas and the lousy hand that fate had dealt them. He’s done his dues, he now does as he wants.
There are some important themes that are referenced, but very deftly. For example, there is that instance that will remain in my memory, when Danny’s sister asks him to get over their mother’s desertion, that men do it all the time and seem allowed to. What about Buddha, she asks. Sainthood has its own shadows, why condemn only the woman who chooses that path? And all through, a few questions continue swirling around, about the weight and onus of motherhood. Does a mother who leaves her children to their father’s care, deciding to live her own life free from her husband’s arrangement of it, never deserve to be understood? How valid are a child’s expectations of a mother’s unfailing presence and attention to its wants, how much of that is natural, and how much influenced through social conditioning? Must a child’s wants always trump its mother’s? As Danny grows before us as an able protagonist, marked with his share of flaws, liable to anger, un-forgivingness and selfish self-absorption,as much as to love and resilience and steadfast commitment, how willing are we to allow for his imperfections? How quickly will we judge him? Judge his mother? And the woman who supplants her in their familial home?
Of course, all is not perfect, there are some lacunae. The premise of some relations, why they cement or why they fail through the passage of time, as between Danny and his wife, seem a little sketchily drawn. The plot seems linear, somewhat predictable in parts, though it reveals itself in a non-linear way. There is a lot that is wrought by fortuitous chance. Some happy serendipity, some weird coincidences, some ultra-neat falling back to what once was, like fate coming full circle with a restitution of original rights. I could quibble with that and say, it’s just a bit much to believe, a little too pat and tidy. But I won’t. The book with all its craft and simplicity, its fine and broad strokes, its stories within stories, characters that carry their personal histories and love and animosities into their futures and still remain deeply entwined with each other, made me happy. That counts. For a lot.
Can’t wait to get hold of Bel Canto. Or, maybe, State of Wonder which my daughter recommends emphatically. Dive in again into prolific Patchett’s pages, be swept away again by her enchanting words, see through her eyes and know that the world and its stories she has searched and sensed and imagined will enrich mine. Bliss.