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'The Dutch House': There's no longer a place like home for two siblings

Ann Patchett's latest novel is "The Dutch House."

Ann Patchett's latest novel is "The Dutch House." Photo Credit: Handout/Harper

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett (Harper, 337 pp., $27.99).

Maeve and Danny Conroy spend hours in Maeve’s car, lurking like spies across the street from their childhood home, nursing not nostalgia but oodles of hurt and resentment.

Thomas Wolfe famously said you can’t go home again. But what if you can never leave?

In “The Dutch House,” the titular abode is a glittering lure for a brother and sister whose mother abandons them and whose stepmother banishes them after their father dies. Shades of “Cinderella.” Ann Patchett, bestselling author of “Bel Canto,” “State of Wonder” and other book-club favorites, has delivered in “The Dutch House” a novel likely to lead to spirited love-it-or-hate-it chatter over wine and cheese.

Goodness knows there’s plenty to unpack: The weird symbiotic connection between Maeve and Danny. Whether a woman who leaves her kids can be a saint. Why Maeve so loathes her stepmother. Why Maeve never seems to have a date. Why Maeve spends her career in frozen vegetables.

Patchett’s previous novel, the fabulous baby boomer saga “Commonwealth” (2016), was a masterpiece of propulsive storytelling. “The Dutch House” is certainly intriguing, but you can almost feel Patchett laboriously constructing it room by room.

The book is narrated by Danny, who is 8 in the opening scene, which evokes “What Maisie Knew,” Henry James’ classic of childhood confusion. Danny is summoned by the housekeeper to meet his father’s “friend.” Andrea is young, pretty, the mother of two little girls, and hellbent on landing a new husband.

This is far from the first trauma endured by the Conroy kids. Their mother left them and went to India, they are told by their father. She may be dead. Danny doesn’t remember her; he was only 3 when Elna left. Maeve, 10 at the time, has since become the fierce protector of her little brother.

Danny, a good if passive kid who lives in his own bubble, is our (often clueless) conduit to the Conroy family secrets. As a character, unfortunately, he’s not terribly interesting until late in the book, when he’s a grown man.

The central mystery is why their mother left. In the back of the reader’s mind hovers the question: Will she return? The framework of “The Dutch House” is solid enough. Cyril Conroy, Danny and Maeve’s dad, is a stoic World War II vet. A poor Brooklyn kid, Cyril amassed a tidy fortune in suburban Philadelphia investing in real estate, starting in 1946 with the Dutch House, an architectural marvel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

After Cyril dies suddenly, Maeve (who has graduated from Barnard) and Danny are cast out from the Dutch House by their stepmother, who has her own set of grievances. In plot twists straight out of Dickens, the Conroy orphans learn that their father had no will, that Andrea had Cyril make her a co-owner of his company, and that they have nothing, other than a trust Dad left for Danny’s education.

Maeve wants Danny to be a doctor. If she had her way, he’d stay in school until he’s 60 and spend every dime of the trust. Danny, forever under his adored sister’s iron grip, goes to medical school. But then, channeling the enigmatic father he admired, he begins buying real estate on the cheap in 1970s New York. Maybe Danny, becoming increasingly self-aware, has a spine after all.

And yet, can the Conroy siblings ever let go of the past and each other? An exasperated Celeste, the woman Danny marries, says of her husband and his sister: “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?” 

Patchett has real affection for her characters, even prickly, bitter Maeve. “The Dutch House” is a rambling maze of a book, but if you keep following its undaunted author, you’ll arrive at a place of forgiveness and comfort that feels, yes, something like home.

 

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