The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

“But we overlay the present into the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we are seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The Dutch House, built in 1922, is a house designed like a stage set up for performance. It’s huge and grandiose, enormous, preposterous spectacular. You can either like it or hate it. There is no place for indifference.

Elna, once wanting to become a nun, a woman who does not even desire surplus food, who is happy cooking pinto beans, using orange zest to bake a cake which she shares with the neighbour who gave the three oranges, recycling old sweaters to make warm clothes for her daughter, helping feeding a neighbourhood torn by war,  is suddenly shocked with a surprise by Cyril, her husband she loves, The Dutch House. It comes with furniture, clothes, linens, plates and even paintings of other people. That one hideous symbol of luxury puts an end to everything Elna had stood and lived for. It shakes her foundation so terribly, that she tries but is just not able to accept. She leaves, the house, the husband and her two children. The house took away all sense of proportion.

Maeve, at fifteen with a brother Danny seven years younger, takes over the role of the mother and the absentee father. She protects Danny fiercely and never gives up on what is best for him.

For Danny, Maeve, is more than the absent mother, the near absentee father (except for the saturday collection of rents), the sister, the friend, all of them and more put together. They bond over everyday sister-brother rituals, like Maeve puts the toothpaste on the toothbrush for both of them. Maeve and Danny confront adversities together and in that process add incredible strength to that relationship.

I could read her blood sugar like the weather. Maeve gets diabetes. Her father thinks she fell sick because of her mother’s on and off presence. He also believes it will kill her if her mother ever comes back.

Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent that she was going to be taller than all other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulder-back might as well been her name.  For years, he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself.

Appears Andrea, who loves the Dutch House. Cyril and Andrea get married, their love for the house is mutual. Elna had embraced the people who worked in the house, Andrea believes in strata. For Andrea these are other’s children and servants, who were earlier the caretakers. The close-knit lives are distanced, what is cooked, how it is served, who stays in which room…she changes everything.

Then Cyril dies of a sudden heart attack.  Andrea acts on the accumulated anger and throws them all out abruptly, intending to make it as bad as it can get. The only provision his father had made was for Danny’s education. Maeve makes the most of it, she sends him to attend the longest and most expensive education possible. Medical school.

The Dutch House stays a big constant in Danny and Maeve’s lives. Nostalgia had moved from being people inside the house to being people parked in a car parked on the street. They have insatiable appetite for the past, the past as it happened and the past as it got lived by them.

Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory pattern. We made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.

Saving most important conversations for the car, they watch the Dutch House through the Linden trees, recall their past, exchange notes from their childhood, information, little or big details, which either of them had missed. “Why did my mother leave”, asks Danny. “Who were the others in her family”, asks Maeve.

Our professional education could be a choice or a chance. Most certainly, it is not genetic. But it can be a kind of inheritance or apprenticeship. When you are spending time with your parents, listening to what they do and speak, there is tremendous absorption, information seeping into the young minds. Though Danny does became a doctor, his real calling was what his father did, real-estate, hammering a nail and pouring cement, putting into practice all the Saturdays he had spent with his father collecting rent.

“The biggest lie in business is that it takes money to make money. Remember that. You’ve got to be smart, have a plan, pay attention to what’s going on around you. None of that costs a dime.”

Danny is aware, if you don’t want to follow the profession of your education, you have to be brilliant at what interests you.

He gets on with life, becomes big in real estate, lives closely with his sister, falls in and out of love, falls in love again with the same person, marries and has children. They go through life as all others.

Gradually, the earlier inhabitants of the Dutch house starts falling back together. Sandy and Jocelyn had taken up other jobs after being thrown out of the Dutch House,  but had stayed in touch with Maeve and Danny.  Fiona, Fluffy to everyone, who had come with the house, later taken in as nanny to the children, who was sacked after she hit Danny with a spoon, injuring him seriously. Many years later, when they meet again, she still carrying the guilt of wounding a child, but they are able to put that episode in a perspective, accept and become more than family to each other. In fact, Danny wonders, the likelihood that their lives would have been better if Fluffy had married their father.

We live forward but understand life in hindsight. Maeve and Danny sieve through their life to make sense of what happened. I’d never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.

But then their mother comes back. Maeve had had a chance to be with her mother. Danny had no such comfort.

To grow up with a mother who had run off to India, never to be heard from again, that was one thing – there was closure in that, its own kind of death. But to find out she was fifteen stops away on the Number One train to Canal and had failed to be in touch was barbaric. After so many years of chaos and exile, our lives are finally settled. Reigniting the fire I had spent my life stamping out.

How is it that two people facing similar situations, forgive differently?

Maeve on her mother who Danny is unable to forgive: “She is our mother and she is back. Do not ruin this for me.”

Danny who had spent some time with Andrea who Maeve is unable to forgive: “She was horrible to us in the end, I will grant you that, but sometimes I wonder if she just did not know any better. May be she was too young to deal with everything, or maybe it was grief. Or maybe things had happened in her own life which had nothing to do with us. Xxx the truth is I have plenty of memories of her being perfectly decent. Xxx

The point is that it’s true. At that time I didn’t hate her, so why do I scrub out every memory of kindness, or even civility, in favour of the memories of someone being awful?”

Andrea is horribly sick. She loses her memory. She thinks of Maeve as her daughter, whose portrait still hangs on the wall of the Dutch House, and Danny, who has striking resemblance with Cyril, she thinks, is her husband.

After nursing her daughter Maeve back to health, Elna goes back to the Dutch House to take care of Andrea, her late husband’s second wife. The very same house where she could not bring herself to live and left two children alone to face life without her. She goes back to serve the very Andrea who is the reason of all the misery caused to her two children. Her work is her calling, does not matter where.

I gave up caring where I lived a long time ago. You have to serve those who need to be served, not just the ones who make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a punishment and panacea together. That is an opportunity is rarest of all. The past is in the past and we need to let things go.

What does a grievous personal injustice mean to different people? How does age, and along with it, gathered experience, wisdom influence forgiveness or lack of it?

But your mother has a higher calling than we do. When you think about saints, I don’t imagine any of them had made their families happy.

This is a heart-warming story of a larger family beyond the blood ties. The language is lucid, exact. Not over-powering or dramatic. It brings out every details and every personality like you can see a feeling take shape right in front of your eyes.

Many times one is unfairly treated, no matter where, family, work, friend circle, neighbourhood. I am not talking about being violated, physically, mentally, as those impact us at a very different level and permeate deep inside us. These is law and prescribed punishment. What we are talking about here are, discrimination, partiality, and such. This difference is important, as they in turn influence how we desire to avenge, seek closure, demand apology.

One thinks things could be talked face to face and sorted and closed. Only if it was all that simple!There is some truth in “time is the biggest healer”. It is not necessary that time itself is the healer; time lets many other things happen, to you and to the one who has wronged you. Both in a way bring some sense of righting to the wrong. It is to be realised that the closure is not necessarily induced and steered by the wronged. There could be a larger sense and a bigger player who rights the wrongs. Could be, we may not see it, may have no idea or any notion or any patience. The possibilities of how closure happens, is not limited by how much we understand closure or how we initiate a closure.

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

All the wonderful people who come into our lives when we are older,  we choose to be friends with, our spouse, partners, friends,  may be can never ever have a true and complete understanding of our life with our siblings, in which ever way that time had spanned out, it will always be layers and layers of depth, looking at childhood through adult eyes, adult interpretations and adult understanding of everything else.

Some books, as I read them, often make me pause and there is a deep connect that prods me to write about it. In this book it was the love between the siblings. Whether you grew up with just one or a bunch of siblings, that growing up together at the young age, good or bad, has no replacement. There can never be a repeat.

There are reasons why sibling relationships do not begin, grow or age well. But if it does, if it could…it’s a companionship for life.

I gave myself this small indulgence sometimes, the belief that, if only I paid attention, I would see her sitting in the darkness outside the Dutch House.

Maeve at ten, in a red coat, her black hair loose.


PS: Most of the italicized test are quotes from the book.


3 thoughts on “The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

  1. Very nicely written review Anu. I am truly encouraged to read this book. The nuances very nicely captured.


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