The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
Upon the death of their father, siblings Danny and Maeve are exiled from their family home by their stepmother, Andrea. We follow them across several decades that follow, as they try and fail to move on with their lives.
Patchett’s prose is pleasant enough and easy to read, and in that respect, this at least never felt like a chore to get through. If you’re willing to pick it apart, there are probably some interesting ideas in here concerning family, privilege, inheritance, and fate. The trouble is, I never felt invested enough to bother analysing it for any depth beyond the largely vapid and stereotype-ridden narrative. The author was clearly going for a fairy tale-vibe with the setup, but the wronged siblings and wicked stepmother tropes contribute nothing when they go entirely unexplored. Indeed, I found all of the characters frustratingly one dimensional.
The handling of the female characters was particularly poor. This would bother me in any read, but a novel written by a woman that has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction? I definitely expected better. All of the women (Maeve, Andrea, the children’s mother, the staff at The Dutch House, and Danny’s wife) all exist and operate almost exclusively in relation to Danny. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to criticise how oblivious men are to the sacrifices women make to ease their lives, but if so, I shouldn’t have to reach to make that conclusion; there should be enough depth in Danny’s narration to make use of such a nuanced theme. Beyond this, Danny’s wife and sister come to detest each other for no apparent reason, and this irritating trope of pitting women against each other also goes entirely unexplored.
As for Andrea, there is no light and shade to her character, nor is there any context given to suggest why she is such a cartoonishly cruel stepmother. She is placed in contrast with Danny and Maeve’s largely absent birth mother, who, despite effectively abandoning her children, is repeatedly excused within the narrative since she is a ‘good’ and ‘Saintly’ person, off doing worthwhile charity work in India. Utilising such starkly opposite archetypes felt like lazy shorthand for character development on both fronts. I also found the end of Andrea’s arc incredibly problematic. ***Slight spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph, though I would say the novel isn’t particularly plot driven anyway.*** Andrea ends up suffering from Alzheimer’s, becoming frail, bedridden, and confused. If this was a push to incite sympathy for the character by supposedly adding another dynamic to her characterisation, it fails, as in no way does it explain or justify her prior behaviour. If, instead, it’s supposed to be some sort of comeuppance or poetic justice, it’s nothing short of tasteless.
The characters also act in absurd ways on several occasions. With all of them lacking discernible motivation, rational thought, and relatable outlooks, they never feel believable beyond the confines of the story. As such, I found it impossible to root for – or even care about – any of them.
The book is supposedly set in the aftermath of WWII, but aside from occasional historic references that actually served to jolt me out of the narrative more than anything, a sense of time and place are almost entirely absent. Again, this may have been a deliberate move to lend the story a timeless feel – a trait often inherent to fairy tales – or it could simply be another flaw in the book’s construction. Either way, I found it odd and disappointing; an evocative setting could have really elevated things somewhat, especially given the importance of the eponymous Dutch House.
In general, I found the whole thing flat and directionless, but the many rave reviews elsewhere suggest others will get on a lot better with it than I did. Patchett’s style is clearly not for me, and I won’t be in a hurry to pick up more of her work.
If you think you’ll have better luck with it, or if you’re making your way through the Women’s Prize longlist like me, you can pick up a copy of The Dutch House from Book Depository by clicking here.
WOMEN’S PRIZE 2020 REVIEWS SO FAR:
1. Girl, Woman, Other | 2. Hamnet | 3. Fleishman Is in Trouble | 4. Girl | 5. A Thousand Ships | 6. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line | 7. Dominicana | 8. The Most Fun We Ever Had | 9. Weather | 10. How We Disappeared | 11. Red at the Bone | 12. Nightingale Point