The Dutch House by Ann Patchett review – indelibly poignant

The US writer’s meticulous eighth novel is a twisting family drama spanning five decades

Chevrolets, Camelot, CinemaScope… The postwar era epitomises a boomtime optimism in American national lore. In Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, The Dutch House, self-made property magnate Cyril Conroy can scarcely conceal his pride when he surprises his wife, Elna, with the mansion he has bought for them on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Yet this ratification of their upward mobility has a peculiar effect on Elna: overawed by the grandeur, she grows thinner and paler, rapidly “turning into a ghost”. It is only much later that the novel’s narrator, Danny, learns from his older sister Maeve how this change in their parents’ circumstances in 1946 hastened the end of their marriage: “Our father was a man who had never met his own wife.”

The immense “folly” at the heart of this novel is called the Dutch House by locals because of the provenance of its original owners rather than its architectural style. Appearing to “float several inches above the hill it sat upon”, the sumptuous building is a vaguely neo-classical confection with huge “storefront windows”, a marvel Danny considers “a singular confluence of talent and luck”. Yet the house, rather like America itself, harbours murky and complicated histories behind the glorious facade. Maeve recounts that their mother was especially unnerved by the belongings abandoned by the former owners, the Van Hoebeek dynasty, whose “stern and unlovely” life-size portraits adorned the drawing room. Fluffy, the resident nanny retained by the Conroys after moving into the house, elaborates on how the haughty respectability of these portraits was belied by bankruptcy and tragedy.

Patchett is an American literary heavyweight whose storytelling has shifted from the hostage crisis chamber piece of her Orange prize-winning breakthrough Bel Canto (2001) to looser domestic dramas, such as her last novel Commonwealth (2016). Twisting back and forth across five decades, The Dutch House presents a multilayered portrayal of the Conroys.

The family history contains plenty to ponder. After Elna walks out for a destination unknown, the siblings face a dismal period living alone with their “impenetrable mystery” of a father. One morning, Danny and Maeve are called down to greet pretty young widow Andrea. Beneath her brittle allure, they reckon, is a schemer determined to land their father and in time, sure enough, Danny and Maeve are asked to submit to the tyranny of a new stepmother. When Cyril dies of a heart attack while inspecting a building site, and with Maeve already at college, Andrea ejects Danny from the house and into his sister’s care, having already sewn up their inheritance. An incensed Maeve persuades Danny to “bilk” the educational trust fund – intended to provide for Andrea’s two daughters too – by applying to the costly medical school at Columbia University. Even though he plays along with this convoluted form of vengeance, Danny sees a more gratifying future in real estate, having accompanied his father on rent collection days and learned from his fair-minded treatment of impoverished tenants.

The looping timeline of The Dutch House deepens the emotional charge of its family drama. Patchett tends to dwell upon our mistaken choices: Danny marries Celeste, a smart homemaker who, it turns out, cannot reconcile herself to her husband’s refusal to practise medicine, while Maeve shuns the attention of doctors despite the life-threatening risks posed by her diabetes. The melancholy realism with which Patchett draws out the unrealised potential of her characters feels downright un-American, yet her storytelling is leavened by moments of grace and reconciliation. Both victory and defeat, after all, peter out to nothing in the end. Indelibly poignant in its long unspooling perspective on family life, The Dutch House brilliantly captures how time undoes all certainties.

• The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Benjamin Evans

The GuardianTramp

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