A story of love and loss and the meaning of home

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

The Dutch House is an opulent home built by a Dutch couple in a small town in Pennsylvania, with carved staircases, guilded ceilings, a ballroom and a lavish light-filled glass hallway.

It is also filled with the Dutch couple’s possessions including carpets and oil paintings, and when Danny Conroy’s property developer father buys it, it is statement that he has arrived.

Young Danny takes the house for granted, never having lived anywhere else, but his beloved older sister Maeve remembers a more impecunious past. Their troubled mother never settles, and eventually leaves, while their father is distant. But the children have each other and a couple of devoted family retainers. Life is pretty good.

Until Andrea arrives, a young mother with two daughters, who moves into their father’s bedroom and becomes the querulous mistress of the house. Andrea and Maeve are soon at odds, only partly because one of Andrea’s daughter’s gets Maeve’s bedroom.

Eventually the relationship between Andrea and Maeve breaks down completely, and Maeve is forced to leave home. When Danny and Maeve’s father dies, they discover everything has been left to Andrea.

Although both Danny and Maeve no longer go back to the Dutch House, it is still a force in their lives. When Danny visits Maeve from New York they often park outside the house and ponder their childhood. Once their home, now barred to them by one they see as their wicked stepmother.

There is bitterness and loss, regret also, as they try to understand what happened to their parents’ marriage and why their mother left them physically while their father, though present, was unengaged.

Ann Patchett is a marvellous novelist who won the Orange Prize for Fiction with Bel Canto, a hostage drama, in 2002. Her characters are rounded and real, frail and strong. The Dutch House is something of a saga, and we see Danny grow up, marry and have children, while Maeve remains in their home town, adored by her brother but never the person he believes she could have become.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel of family, of love and loss. Oh, and a wonderful house.

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