Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, THE DUTCH HOUSE is a coming of age tale of the bond between two motherless children, Maeve and Danny. NPR says it has traces of ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Little Princess’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, no mother, evil stepmother, lost privilege and place in life, and dark obsessive reminiscing. More than this, it’s a story of childhood trauma of two kids who obsess over their childhood home, the Dutch House. It begins quite simply with a rag to riches event of a husband buying his wife a 1922 mansion in celebration of his newly found success. Problem is the wife feels like an imposter in the house because as she says late in the story, “We were poor people…I had no business in a place like that, all those fireplaces and staircases, all those people waiting on me.” So how does she handle this stress? She leaves one night, abandons her children to go to India to work in orphanages. She confesses years later to Danny, “I could have served the poor of Philadelphia and come home at night but I didn’t have the sense God gave a goose”. She goes on to say that the Dutch House “took away all sense of proportion.” Add to this sad story, a wicked stepmother who throws out Danny and Maeve following the death of their father, and you have some kids suffering from childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma shows up in a myriad of ways. Since the story is told by Danny in first person, you really get a sense of his struggles: attention issues, ranging from neglecting some things and hyperfocusing on others, detachment problems, self-destructive behaviors, and obsessive worrying about Maeve. Danny also has memory gaps from his childhood. He is never sure if he knew something but forgot it or if he never knew it to begin with. He admits to being “asleep to the world.” Maeve becomes his mother figure, confidante, business partner to the detriment of his marriage. She develops long term health issues stemming from childhood Type 1 diabetes. And she never stops wishing for her mother’s return.
They return to Van Hoebeck Street to park in front of the Dutch House throughout their adult lives. Their obsessive reminiscing focuses on the house. Danny says they kept returning to the house “like swallows, like salmon, we were helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we lost was the house, not our mother, not our father…We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.” Danny’s wife Celeste has no patience with such and says, “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel. You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get. Do you ever get tired of reminiscing?”
The story of the house does come full circle in a bit of a fairy tale ending, but to be honest, I welcomed the ending after all the sadness Maeve and Danny experience. You walk along side of them as they wrestle with their issues of life: love, family, forgiveness, inheritance, and who they were as individuals. Late in the book, Danny says his rage exhaled and died over time which gives him some comfort, as it will the reader too.