Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it was?— Ann Patchett
Original Rating: 9.5/10
Short Review: This family soap opera wraps you in the suburbs of Pennsylvania and the boroughs of New York to bring you a family whose entire legacy revolves around a house that nobody really seems to want. The relationships built in this novel seem to have you cheering and cursing the characters at the same time in one hell of a roller coaster ride.
Long Review: I originally gravitated towards this novel because of Tom Hanks’s narration on Audible. I went into the story knowing nothing more than the title and the assumption that it was about the girl on the cover. Upon further listening, I realized that it was not just about this girl on the cover, but her entire dysfunctional family. The story follows the protagonist, Danny and his sister, Maeve, through their time in the titular Dutch House and in the aftermaths of being forced to vacate the premises. The beginning of the story focuses very heavily on Danny and Maeve’s father Cyril’s remarriage to a woman named Andrea, citing that event as the beginning of the end of a seemingly happy time in their childhood. Through the retelling of this remarriage, we learn that Maeve and Danny’s mother left them to go to India when they were ten, seemingly contributing to Maeve’s diabetes. After their father’s sudden death, they are kicked out of the house by their “wicked” step-mother and left with nothing more than an education trust fund. Very quickly, Maeve takes on the role of Danny’s caregiver and Danny is forced into a career that he very quickly decides that he doesn’t want, but continues to pursue out of duty towards his sister.
Maeve’s and Danny’s relationship comes across as very strange in this story. Despite being extremely close, it consistently feels like a power struggle between two unequal opponents. Danny and Maeve come across as closer than normal, with Maeve being the third bedfellow in Danny’s marriage (she never marries). Maeve’s presence in his life seems to keep Danny from living in the present. In terms of Maeve’s character, I find that she is so dependent on Danny that she can’t imagine a life without him and so she inserts herself in any aspect of his life that she can in order to never be truly alone. It’s a beautiful commentary on the power of family and the power of feeling like you are a part of something, even if it’s just as an onlooker.
One idea that occurs pretty consistently throughout the novel is revisiting the past. Danny and Maeve constantly find themselves sitting outside of their childhood home, not to see their step-mother but to see what they have lost. In their teenage and young adult years, this revisiting feels significant because they belong to no one. Maeve and Danny have suffered collective losses throughout the decades that the story follows. During these years before Danny is married with kids, I almost thought that Danny felt alone even though he had Maeve. The beautiful thing about having a family member that you’re close to is that you can express yourself in a way that nobody else understands. Danny can’t really do that with Maeve because she’s so fixated on getting back at Andrea and taking what’s hers by forcing Danny to continue on an educational track that he hates.
Later, when Danny marries and has children, Maeve is almost forced to take a backseat to the new wife. Both of these central women in Danny’s life hate each other, which leads to his constant feeling like he’s choosing between two lives that he could have had. He never really chooses until the choice is made for him, something that drove me crazy because Danny comes across as a character with no spine.
I find that Danny proves to be the character who gains the most power throughout the novel and yet doesn’t use it. As a child, he is subject to Maeve’s whims and as he gets older, he has the power to say no but never uses his voice. Normally, I would find this very irritating but in this case, I found that these were the actions of a scared little boy – something that Danny never really grows out of – and it surprised me of how much I sympathized with Danny’s character. He’s afraid of being abandoned for not being the perfect son, which leads to him being far from perfect.
In terms of the book as a whole, I found that it wasn’t a plot driven story. You could very easily lose yourself in a scene or two and pretend like Danny was sitting in the car next to you and telling you this story from memory. There were parts where it was easy to zone out because of how seemingly monotonous the story was but in reality, I think those scenes contributed to the story the most because it added to the feeling of accessibility. This isn’t a story that is so far removed that it can’t be relatable. It’s a story of the pain of loss and love which is almost universally felt. It was beautiful and I highly recommend it.
The only reason that I wouldn’t give it a 10/10 is that I would’ve liked to know a little more about Danny’s relationships outside of Maeve. Though I understand that it’s not the point of this narrative, I often felt like Danny was quite lonely but Maeve couldn’t be there for him all the time, such as in college. Aside from the women in his life, did Danny have no other friendships? Just a thought.
Afterthought Rating: 9/10
Concluding Explanation: Stories like The Dutch House that allow you to lose yourself in the lives of the characters are the best stories. Yes, an extremely plot heavy story is nice once in a while, but I think that stories like this remind us that our lives are not always marked by wars and plagues. It’s also marked by development of relationships with the people around us. Patchett’s beautiful storytelling brings you such happiness that strips away the world around you and leaves you standing outside the Dutch House, watching the events unfold as if you were a part of the story.