The Dutch House: A Book Review

Book Reviews

When retelling a familiar story with your family or friends, have you realized they have different memories of those same events? In the novel The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, explores this concept with thoughtful passion, creating an amazing journey from cover to cover.

Released in 2019, the novel follows Danny Conroy who retells his life’s story in order to realize the mysteries of his childhood in which the story begins to show the strong bond Danny has to his older sister Maeve. They live in a beautiful Dutch house, which in itself could be called a mansion, with servants and their self-made father. None other than a few have ever stepped inside the house until a woman named Andrea seemingly comes from nowhere. She eventually moves in with her two daughters when she becomes Danny’s and Maeve’s stepmother. Soon their lives become a twisted fairy tale as they are catapulted into poverty by their stepmother. The two siblings that from the beginning of the book were only comfortable around each other, are thrown into the world with the clothes on their backs and a few family photos. The book jumps back and forth between years of Danny’s life, from meeting Andrea, to his marriage, and all in between. While the reader and Danny slowly put together the causes and effects of past actions, both will come to solve the puzzle laid out before our very eyes and come to understand what the Dutch house truly is.

A detail that can be overlooked when reading is Patchett’s diction. Patchett uses vivid language to unfold the true beauty of the Dutch house and what secrets are held within its walls. I could see the intense pictures being painted by every word. She approaches every scene with such vivid description and an imaginative style; I could hardly put down the novel once I started.  

Penn Station looked like a feedlot and we, the anxious travelers, were the cows standing in pools of melted slush, bundled up and pressed together in the overheated terminal.

The image of Penn Station will forever be with me. Not to mention the image of the actual Dutch house will be painted into my mind, and I can only dream of its existence.

Another praise is that both Danny and Maeve are extremely brilliant but are real people. They make mistakes and suffer consequences for their actions. They are not a cookie-cutter mold of character stereotypes. They get angry, sad, happy, jealous, just a full show of emotions from both Danny and Maeve. After one encounter after losing everything they own is Maeve’s taste of revenge. Danny and she went to the lawyer and found out there was nothing they could do to fight their stepmother’s decision and the only thing that they had was an education trust left to them. In that moment you can feel revenge in the air from Maeve as she makes a life changing decision for the both of them. I found immense enjoyment out of this because in a day where it seems every movie character can do whatever they want and have zero consequences, it is refreshing to read a story that is based on a fairy tale and have such real, emotional characters.

One thing that bothered me is the underuse of foreshadowing. With the way Patchett wrote the novel, jumping to different moments in Danny’s life, she could have been very clever with hinting at the future. She does have some moments where foreshadowing is there, however, they are seemingly followed by her having a character say what the novel is foreshadowing.

Patchett’s novel could be improved if she enabled us, as readers, to discover truths and facts about the characters ourselves rather than relaying on exposition to cue us in on important information in the story. Successful authors often use “Show. Don’t tell” as a technique for providing important plot details for a story. As a reader you can understand a character is wrong by their actions. If a character spits on a puppy with no just cause, you know they are a bad person. A reader does not need another character to say “Man, they’re a bad person.” I did not see this done within The Dutch House more than a few times. This of course, did not take away the enjoyment of the book. I thoroughly found great pleasure while reading and wanted to know what would happen next to Danny. However, the structure of Patchett’s writing was not clever because sometimes she sets up false expectations that would fall flat within a few sentences.

While reading this book, I was drawn to the way Patchett focuses on forgiveness. Most people, including myself sometimes, are not the easiest to forgive people that have done wrong. However, when reading this it is a focal point in Danny’s life story. He has had awful things done to him, but he somehow has learned to forgive and forget his anger. Maeve, on the other hand decides to live in the past. In this way, I as a Christian am reminded we are to forgive others. In Colossians 3:13, Paul writes:

Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.

Meaning, that Jesus forgave you (if you are saved through him) of your sins and that we should forgive others. This was an unexpected revelation I came across while reading. The characters are Catholics, but they are not practicing Catholics. Patchett does not go out of her way to make this connection stand out; however, if you are a Christian, you will see the parallel of Jesus forgiving us and Danny and Maeve having to learn to forgive, in order to learn the secrets of their past and look towards the future.

The Dutch House had ups and downs. I found that I could mostly give praise to such a well worded and carefully thought out story with memorable characters. There were a few hiccups with foreshadowing and Show, Don’t Tell techniques. However, I enjoyed the underlying Christian moral, even if it wasn’t intended. Overall, I found The Dutch House a fantastic read and would recommend to it anyone that likes a well written story about a strong bond between brother and sister.