This was only my second read by Patchett, after the excellent Commonwealth, and I was struck again by Patchett’s thoughtful development of characters and understanding of family dynamics. This is a story that covers decades in the lives of a single family in Pennsylvania, from about the 50s to today, told through the eyes of youngest son Danny. It’s also, as the title suggests, a story of a house, one that brings together and breaks apart this family.
I listened to this on audiobook. I normally don’t like to listen to this kind of book, because I feel like I lose something by not being able to see the way Patchett uses words. But in this case, that was balanced out by the tremendous reading of Tom Hanks. Hanks brings so much warmth and emotion to his reading, where many audiobook narrators are much more deadpan. So I can’t say what this book is like in print, but I definitely recommend the audiobook.
Danny tells this story of his family, often jumping around in chronology. We learn about his close relationship with his sister Maeve. Much of the book centers around the impact of their abandonment by their mother when he was a young boy, which we find out is closely connected to the Dutch House. I particularly remember a conversation Danny and Maeve have early in the book. Danny remembers as a child telling Maeve he’s much better off than she is, because he grew up with a mother (Maeve) while she didn’t. Maeve, who is about five years older, says it’s just the opposite. She had their mother until she was much older. She had a chance to get to know their mother, while Danny barely remembers her. On the flip side, she clearly suffered more from her mother leaving than Danny did, and she’s the one forced to take on the role of parent long before she’s ready to.
I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. 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, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen, the ship in the waves of the grandfather clock rocking the minutes away.
You can see just from this quote how the house is very much a character in this story. The Dutch House is everything to Danny, who is born and grows up there. Maeve has mixed feelings about the house, because she remembers moving there as a child, and it is this house that seemingly drives their mother away. The house is grand, historic, and imposing – but it’s also a place of luxury and comfort. Danny and Maeve grow up with a cook, a nanny, and a housekeeper. There’s a dining room with a ceiling so ornate it makes the children uncomfortable. It’s a house where different rooms have different personalities, and some rooms are never explored at all. Most importantly, it’s a house that symbolizes financial success and stability and inequity – and to this family, it’s a house that is gained, and then lost.
This is one of those books that has a lot more in it than you realize at the time you’re reading it. One of Patchett’s frequent themes is how the past changes in our minds as we age and never stays fixed. Another theme is the repetition of patterns of behavior from one generation to the next. And another is how we never fully understand the people we’re closest too, because of course we see them through our own lens of needs and wants. Danny’s sister Maeve is in many ways the center of this story, and a character we can’t fully understand, because Danny always sees things less than completely.
And maybe too, it’s about the importance of home, the place we grow up, and how our adult emotions stay fixed on that place. For many of us, it may not be a house. Rather, it’s that thing in our childhoods that gave us a feeling of comfort and stability, and something we lost along the way. That’s what it made me think about, anyway.
I highly recommend this book, whether you read it or listen to the audiobook. Patchett’s writing is beautiful and yet her prose never distracts from the story itself. The characters are compelling and complex, even the ones that are over-simplified in Danny’s eyes: his father, mother and his stepmother. Even the cover is gorgeous.
I’m looking forward to reading more by Patchett. The one I hear recommended most often is Bel Canto. Any other suggestions?