The house in Ann Patchett’s eighth novel is the last word in desirable real estate. “Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.”
The sun-drenched Dutch House – so named not for its architecture but for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks – is in every sense a hot property. Built in boomtime 1920s Philadelphia, it boasts Delft mantels and marble floors, a ballroom and a dining room with a gilt ceiling “more in keeping with Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania”. Crammed with silk chairs, tapestry ottomans, Chinese lamps and oil paintings, it is, as one of the characters observes, “a piece of art” and, like a piece of art, it ignites extreme reactions in the people who come into contact with it.
First in line are the Conroys. Cyril Conroy is a hard-up but ambitious property developer with a talent for life-changing surprises. He acquires the house in 1946 when the Van Hoebeeks go bankrupt, taking possession not only of the building but of its servants and sumptuous contents, and installing his wife, Elna, and children, Maeve and Danny, in their ready-made new existence overnight. Their rags-to-riches move from a rental “the size of a postage stamp” to the Dutch House with its treasures spells the beginning of the end of the marriage. Elna’s disintegration, in all its flamboyant pathos and ascetic self-denial, is brilliantly handled. Insisting that she has “no business in a place like that, all those fireplaces and staircases, all those people waiting on me”, she flees to help the destitute in India. Art is not for everyone.
When Elna goes, the Conroys are thrown into a crisis of archetypal proportions: “They had all become characters in the worst part of a fairytale.” The children are left to the ministrations of the cook and housekeeper, a pair of warm-hearted sisters (though Danny, like a fairytale prince, doesn’t realise for a long time that his two watchful guardians have their own backstory). Their father, in the way of 1940s fathers and fairytale kings, is too busy ruling his empire to oversee their care. Danny survives the loss of his mother because his sister – loving, resourceful Maeve, vividly drawn by Patchett – steps into the breach: “Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares.” She’s Snow White or Red Riding Hood as Vermeer might have painted her.
Cyril introduces a young widow called Andrea and her two daughters to the Dutch House, and the fragile equilibrium of this kingdom is destroyed. Like all enchantresses, the demure but deadly Andrea has “a knack for making the impossible seem natural”, including marriage to Cyril. We know what happens next: once their stepmother has taken possession, Maeve and Danny will be systematically pushed out. But the question of what, if any, kind of reconciliation with the past might still be achieved after such a profound betrayal gives The Dutch House an irresistible narrative drive. It’s a mark of Patchett’s skill that the novel’s bold fairytale elements – its doubles and archetypes, its two children left to find their own way back to their home after being expelled – add up to a story that feels wholly naturalistic.
There are other, more subtle literary templates underpinning the book. It’s no coincidence that Maeve has “a stack of Henry James novels on her bedside table” – among them The Turn of the Screw. An obsessive younger woman who comes to a big house and falls for the aloof owner? Check. Lost mother? Check. Terrorised children? Check. Stalwart and sceptical housekeeper? Check. “Lots of ghosts” (as Danny puts it)? Check that, too. If The Dutch House is like a novel by James, however, then it’s most like The Spoils of Poynton, cleverly appropriating that book’s use of a coveted house and its treasures as an index to human character. Andrea is marked out as morally deficient during her very first visit to the Dutch House, when she singles out the portraits of the Van Hoebeeks to Cyril for praise: “‘It must be a comfort, having them with you,’ Andrea said to him, not of his children but of his paintings.’” Like a Jamesian villain, she prefers art to life.
James said that the house of fiction has “not one window, but a million”, depending on who is looking at the scene, and Patchett’s elegantly constructed narrative often reads like a dramatisation of this idea. For years after they are banished from the Dutch House, Maeve and Danny make a ritual of parking outside their former home to watch the comings and goings of Andrea and their stepsisters through its vast windows. “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” asks Danny, now in college, where Maeve forces him to endure years of expensive medical training simply to drain the educational fund that would otherwise devolve to Andrea’s daughters. “We look back through the lens of what we know now,” he decides, “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.” The glass-walled Dutch House may be open to view, but the truth it contains is obscured.
As the layers of the past are rolled away, the shocks keep coming. Vanished fairytale mothers have a habit of reappearing at critical times, and so it is with self-denying Elna, “the little sister of the poor, the assemblage of bones and tennis shoes”. In spite of her frailty, she is a truly monstrous creation, dispensing charity with the ruthless impartiality of a saint, offering her love and presence to all except her own family. The other characters don’t get off lightly either. Cyril is revealed as weak and neglectful, a man who never really liked children, even his own. And if Maeve is a substitute mother then she’s in some ways as compromised a figure as Elna and Andrea, demanding her own relentless form of sacrifice in the guise of Danny’s medical studies. Having carried out his sister’s revenge against their stepmother by qualifying as a doctor, he refuses to practise medicine. Like art, healing is not for everyone.
Except that, in the world of The Dutch House, it almost is. It’s a rare Patchett novel that ends without the slightest glimmer of redemption, and here the major players virtually all – as in a story by James – arrive at final positions that involve an ironic inversion of where they started. Danny’s eventual accommodation of the past, and of his family’s choices, seems both inevitable and earned. “The point wasn’t whether or not I liked it,” he admits. “The point was it had to be done.” And besides, by middle age he “had the idea that all of the hard things had already happened”: as always, Patchett leads us to a truth that feels like life rather than literature.