The Dutch House

By Ann Patchett

I heard so many good things about Ann Patchett’s novel, The Dutch House, that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  Throw in the bonus of Tom Hanks serving as the narrator and I was “all in”.  However, as I was listening to the narration, I kept waiting for something more to happen.  I was wondering when the big event would take place, but nothing of any significant magnitude happened.

Maeve and Danny are brother and sister, with Maeve being about six years older.  Their mother does leave them when they are young and that is certainly heart-wrenching, but the children don’t miss her to the point that their lives are ruined.  While their father is a quiet man, he’s not mean.  Maeve and Danny have a nice roof over their heads and good food on the table prepared by loving household help.  Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes at a young age and her condition does worsen over time.

Spoiler alert.  The father remarries and the children don’t like the stepmother.  Really, it’s Maeve who seems to struggle with the stepmother.  Danny seems to waffle on whether he really dislikes his stepmother.  Once again, the stepmother’s transgressions are small (she gives her own daughter Maeve’s room when Maeve is at college).  I kept waiting for the big blow up does when the father dies unexpectedly.  The stepmother evicts Danny (who is now 16) from the house telling Maeve, to care for him.  In addition, the stepmother takes control of her husband’s business and the children are left without an inheritance.  While these events are the ones that shape Maeve’s and Danny’s views going forward, they still did not feel as traumatic as one might expect.  Perhaps there just wasn’t enough build up to the event or maybe the events weren’t all that surprising.  Whatever it was that was lacking, for me, the sudden changes were anticlimactic.

Soon after their father’s death, the children discover a small loophole with an education trust.  Maeve has already graduated college and is working so she cannot take advantage of furthering her education, but she decides Danny will become a doctor, despite his protests and pure lack of interest.  When home from medical school, Danny and Maeve site outside the Dutch House where they grew up and Maeve mostly, laments their loss.

In addition to the anticlimactic nature of the events, the characters are petty.  Maeve is constantly painting her stepmother as a bad person with little to show by way of example.  When he does get married, Danny’s wife is petty, always trying to drive a wedge between Danny and his sister.  Even their mother, with whom they reconnect is petty.  She is lightly portrayed as a saint but is far from it.  She is selfish, even while serving others.  Paradoxical but accurate.

I also have two other misgivings about the book.  Firstly, the birthmother character was not believable.  I would have left her in India.  Secondly, the book should have ended immediately after (spoiler alert) Maeve’s death.  Even by that time the end was getting weird and the strangeness continued.

I may be conjuring up this opinion because I do think Ann Patchett is a very good writer, but I think, pettiness, the inability to see things from the point of view of others and the willingness to carry a grudge over events that, in the end were surmountable was the point of the book.  Sure, Maeve and Danny were wronged, but what if they had tried to like their stepmother when she first came into their lives?  Could things have turned out differently for everyone?  Some books are about love and loss, but this one was about loss of time wasted pining over perceived slights.  No one can afford to lose that amount of time.

Some books are supposed to make you think about big issues and this book did that by addressing small issues, that added up.  The Dutch House made me think about the issue of how much precious time is wasted on perceptions of being wronged.  How many hours of happiness are traded for negativity in our lives?  Many of us know a Maeve and The Dutch House is a good reminder why we don’t want to be her.  Just to have this important message reinforced with such fine storytelling is worth the time it takes to read the book.