BOOK REVIEW: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – January 2020

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

I’ve long been a fan of Ann Patchett, both of her fiction and her non-fiction. The Dutch House differs from her previous novels. Features from earlier books are traceable, but in muted form. This is a quiet book, complex and subtle.

The novel’s muted, patient quality makes it hard to get hold of. No handle offers itself. The characters and events catch and hold one’s interest, but there’s no implicit moral, no moment of truth. The house of the title puts itself forward as a central focus, but it functions passively as a place to which the characters are drawn and return. The author doesn’t describe it fully or forcefully enough to make it a strong presence. Sometimes glamorous, sometimes oppressive, it refuses to make a clear statement.

Like the house, the story is not easy to reduce to any formulation of its meaning. Patchett stays too close to the ground for that, hewing to the old rule: Show, don’t tell.  There are no paragraphs ending in a shrewd observation on what has just occurred, no pauses in which the author takes stock of events so far, or comments on the wisdom of a character’s decision. She never makes a generalization of any kind. The story catches you in its net and pulls you along, keeping your nose very close to what’s occurring in the moment and curious about what’s going to happen next. There’s unfailing narrative momentum. I know this because I read it twice, and the plot picked me up and carried me just as efficiently both times.

Despite the absence of directional signals, I tried to extract some theme that would give me a clue to what Patchett was striving for here. The prime candidate was, showing the effects of parental abandonment on children. The main characters lose both parents and the going is rough. But Patchett is careful to dramatize the needs of the mother who leaves so that we can sympathize with her. And the parent who stays is so intent on his own work and interests, he has minimal contact with the children, and when he dies early, his will doesn’t provide for them adequately. So while leaving is bad, staying doesn’t guarantee a good result either.

This brings up the other candidate for central issue: whether it’s right to follow your own star, no matter what.  Answering an overwhelming call to serve the poor, the mother causes her children untold suffering, and the father stays not in order to bring up the children properly but to fulfill his longing to build a real estate empire. Living their dreams, both parents cause damage without meaning or wanting to. On the other hand, the sister who gives up her dreams to care for her younger brother harbors tremendous anger and hatred against people who have harmed her, and to get revenge compels her brother to train for a career he has no appetite for. In this novel, neither being true to yourself nor self-sacrifice is free from negative consequences.

The idea that comes closest to identifying the novel’s central thrust was suggested to me by a friend: The story is about the search for home. The Dutch house of the title is not a home for the main characters because they’re unhappy there, and the unhappiness comes from an absence of loving relationships. The only place where the narrator remembers being happy growing up is the tiny apartment he lived in with his sister while finishing high school, where he slept in the bedroom and she slept on the living room sofa. His sister loved and supported him  and he returned her love. Nevertheless, for decades they return to sit in a car outside the Dutch house and reminisce, piecing together the past of their broken family.

What finally makes the novel worth one’s attention is that there are no simple answers. No rules for living. No heroes or heroines, though some people are a lot nicer than others. At the end there is no summation that does justice to the elaborate inlay Patchett has fashioned. Does this mean the book is all craft and no passion? Not at all. There’s an undercurrent of sadness that intensifies the longer you contemplate the action, and a simultaneous capacity for wonder and delight at the forms human beings and their destinies take. The Dutch House is a book that rewards close scrutiny. I would like to hear Patchett explain what her aim was as she was writing it, for it has an air of reserve, even caution, about it that makes it re