A magnificent castle. A pair of fatherless siblings. A wicked stepmother. Over the bones of familiar fairy tales, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House lays a narrative about classism, connection, and invisibility, set against the landscape of Philadelphia’s northern suburbs.
Prime Philly real estate
The titular house is a stunning, glass-fronted mansion in Elkins Park, bought by the family patriarch as a gift to his wife after World War II. The ersatz Hansel and Gretel are Danny and Maeve Conroy, the observant (albeit self-centered) narrator and his brilliant older sister. The wicked stepmother, is Andrea, their distant father’s social-climbing second wife, who views her marriage merely as a stepping stone to securing the most prime piece of real estate in this affluent suburb of Philadelphia.
Real estate is the driving force of the narrative. The Conroy family has risen from poverty to wealth, immediately before Danny’s birth, thanks to their father’s keen eye for acquiring buildings, from comfortable apartments in nearby Jenkintown and Melrose Park to tenement housing in North Philly. Danny, who inherits his father’s passion, rarely pauses to reflect on the morals and ethics of the exploitative aspects of his business endeavors. Over the novel’s 50-year span, he truly connects only with Maeve, the most intriguing character of the bunch.
At the tender age of 7, Maeve takes on the responsibility of raising her baby brother (their malingering mother finally leaves home when she is 10 and Danny is 3). Maeve is the star of the family: dramatically beautiful, diligently brilliant, wise beyond her years even into adulthood, and the de facto lady of the house until the arrival of Andrea, a cold woman with two young daughters of her own.
Following the early and undignified death of the Conroys’ father, Maeve, already a college graduate, is tasked with raising teenaged Danny after Andrea ousts him from the house the same week as the funeral. All of the Conroy assets are in Andrea's name except for an educational trust left to provide for her stepson. Maeve, indignant, pushes Danny into Choate, and later Columbia medical school, institutions chosen for their astronomical cost, as a way to thumb her nose at her stepmother.
The greatest drawback of The Dutch House is that Danny’s narration hints deliciously at dramas that bubble below the surface but never break through. Maeve is a math prodigy who comes of age in the middle of the 20th century, yet is seemingly content to invest all of her ambition in her brother. Andrea’s greatest crime prior to her husband’s death was an air of aloofness and the tendency to prioritize her daughters, with no explanation for how she remorselessly turns a fatherless child out of the only home he’s ever known. Yet because we see them only through Danny’s navel-gazing eyes, the most enigmatic characters remain unexplored.
The Dutch House is best read as a study on the invisible work of women. Danny is the vessel whose success and achievement have been nurtured, by his sister, his household staff, and later his wife. He is both the project and the prize, but that’s a truth that remains forever out of his grasp.
What, When, Where
The Dutch House. Ann Patchett. Harper, September 24, 2019. 340 pages, hardcover; $27.99.