From the outset, Ann Patchett’s intricate and alluring new novel, “The Dutch House,” announces its enriching relationship to two literary classics: Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”
All three novels are retrospective fictional autobiographies narrated by middle-aged people and tell the story of how orphans make their way in the world, forging their identity in the face of meddling and cruel relatives, social pressures and constraints, self-doubt and human limitation. And all feature imposing and mysterious houses, are filled with references to fairy tales, explore the idea of paradise lost and regained, and ruminate on memory’s shaping power.
“The Dutch House” is narrated by Danny Conroy, a fifty-something real estate developer reflecting on the puzzle of his life with a tone by turns rueful, ardent, cool, and confessional. Like “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations,” it opens with a seminal memory from childhood, of a day when everything changed. For Jane, it’s getting locked in the red room; for Pip, encountering a convict; and for Danny, it’s meeting the woman who will become his “evil stepmother” and set in motion his eventual disinheritance and expulsion from the family home.
We begin with Danny as an eight-year-old boy, reading in a private nook he’s created with draperies (a direct allusion to introverted, bookish Jane Eyre and the retreat she creates). He’s summoned by Sandy, the housekeeper, to meet a friend of his father, Cyril, a successful real estate tycoon. Cyril is a self-made man who bought The Dutch House, a mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs, as a surprise gift for Danny’s mother, Elna. Intimidated and repulsed by the house’s grandiosity and the roles of wealthy housewife, mistress of the estate, and manager of a cadre of household help, Elna left the family when Danny was three and his “doting sister,” Maeve, ten. He’s been raised by his stoic, aloof father, his fiercely protective and eminently capable sister, and a flock of loving domestics, but hasn’t heard from his mother since.
On this fateful day, a new mother figure has arrived. Danny first sees Andrea admiring the portraits of the house’s original owners that still hang in its ornate drawing room. Whereas Elna had considered the house “a big responsibility” she needed to escape, Andrea apotheosizes it as “a piece of art” . She soon moves in with her two daughters, marries Cyril, and exerts her control in favor of the stepsisters. Exiled to the third story, Maeve becomes a Bertha Mason, a Cinderella, a Sarah Crewe. “It’s just like The Little Princess!” Maeve laughingly exclaims, “the girl loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic and make her clean the fireplaces.” Little does Maeve how prescient she’s being here.
When Cyril drops dead at fifty-three and Danny and Maeve don’t immediately notify her, all of Andrea’s pent-up rage and resentment erupt and she evicts them from the Dutch House.
They soon find out that they’ve been disinherited in favor of their stepmother and the only thing their father has arranged for them is an “educational trust,” which provides them with unlimited funds to put toward school. Over his objections, Maeve insists Danny go to medical school; like Miss Havisham with Estella and Pip, she plots out the course of another’s life and uses him to enact revenge. Meanwhile, brother and sister return again and again to the site of their lost childhood, drawn “like swallows, like salmon, …helpless captives of …migratory patterns.”
The Dutch House is more than a house, of course. Like Bronte’s Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, Du Maurier’s Manderley, Jay Gatsby’s mansion, Darcy’s Pemberley, and Miss Havisham’s Satis House, it is a compelling character in its own right, one which plays a central role in courtships, marriages, and the trajectory of its inhabitants’ lives. It’s a lure and a seduction, a testament to wealth and privilege, a home and a prison. Its meaning both transparent — it’s a glass mansion and Danny reminds us often “you could see right into the house, through the house” — and opaque, the Dutch House haunts those who have once lived in it and inexorably draws them back.
Unlike “Great Expectations” and “Jane Eyre” — both straightforward, chronological narratives with linear plots — “The Dutch House” jumps around in time. This is both a strength and a weakness of the novel, sometimes evacuating it of suspense and propulsive urgency, but just as often enabling interesting juxtapositions and deeper reflections on perspective and memory — though as Patchett reminds us, it’s impossible “to ever see the past as it actually was.”
“The Dutch House” is about how we tell ourselves stories in order to live. It is also about the flaws and limitations of any individual story, the necessity of belated corrections, the hard quest to define ourselves outside of the shaping narratives imposed on us by our pasts, our homes, our loved ones.
The precision and subtlety of Patchett’s observations about family, her deft absorption and redeployment of a host of literary modes and models, and her narrator’s unsparing honesty are all deserving of high praise. And despite a final plot twist that feels a bit pat, “The Dutch House” has the richness, allusiveness, and emotional heft of the best fiction.
by Ann Patchett
Harper Collins, 352 pp. $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’