Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

book cover: the dutch house

I’ve listened to Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House twice and hate the ending as much as I love the beginning, which makes it hard to evaluate. Quick note on the audiobook: Tom Hanks does a stellar job. I thought he was reading too quickly at first, even checking the playback speed, but he won me over by the second chapter. He “acts” the dialogue in an understated way and doesn’t use a high-pitched voice for female characters.

The Dutch House follows siblings Danny and Maeve over a period of decades. Their mother left when they were young and their father eventually remarries. Their new stepmother, Andrea, is a caricature of an evil stepmother. I half expected her to offer Maeve an apple after consulting a magic mirror, but she’s content to throw them out of their home (the titular Dutch House) upon their father’s death.

The appeal and magic of this book is the relationship between Danny and Maeve. They have an extraordinarily close sibling relationship that isn’t corny or saccharine. Listening to Tom Hanks’s narration, I felt like I was listening to Danny recount his relationship with Maeve, like it was just the two of us and he was telling me a story. I can’t say whether this is due to the quality of the writing (this is the first book I’ve read by Patchett) or the quality of the narration, but it was a unique listening experience that changed the way I see (hear?) audiobooks. (This review is NOT brought to you by Audible.)

Once Maeve and Danny are on their own, time passes more quickly. Their relationship shifts over the years, but they always have time for one another. Maybe too much time, as their closeness occasionally creates wrinkles in their ability to connect with other people. The Dutch House, their former home, remains in their lives as Maeve regularly watches it from her car, wondering about their stepmother’s silhouette in the windows.

Before the ending sequence, I was prepared to say this book was the best I’d read in years, but there’s an abrupt 180 near the end that radically changed my opinion. I read in an interview that Patchett ultimately wanted to tell the story of a woman who abandoned her family for “ethical” reasons. That Danny ever forgives his mother can be labelled as “character growth,” but the extent of his forgiveness doesn’t feel earned. In fact, his reaction only made sense to me after I read the interview, which makes me suspect the conclusion is in service to the author’s storytelling goals more than the characters.

I put “ethical” in quotes above because I disagree. Their mother’s stated/implied reason for leaving is that she didn’t feel comfortable living in the very fancy Dutch House while there is so much poverty and despair in the world. She goes to India to tend to the poor and sick, but doesn’t keep in touch with her children. Maybe working, donating, and volunteering for the local poor don’t meet her ethical standards, but she could have kept in touch. When she returns to the U.S., she makes no effort to see Danny or Maeve until it’s almost too late.

By the end, when she moves into the Dutch House for her last charitable act of the novel, she clarifies that it was never about the house. She believes in acts of showy goodness. She’s fine sleeping in her old bed, caring for a single individual, so long as that individual isn’t one of her children. I don’t understand how Danny comes to call her a “saint” without clarifying that she’s a terrible mother. Why can’t she be two things: a giving person who has no idea of reasonable limits, while also being incapable of maternal generosity? Why does she have to be purely “good” while the stepmother is purely “evil.” In fact, I think this is why Andrea is so cartoonishly evil: No matter how bad Danny’s mother is, the reader is more outraged by Andrea’s behavior.

For a book that seemingly tries to tackle complex, nuanced relationships, there’s too much that’s made simplistic by the ending. If the last few chapters conveyed more nuance, they would have left a better impression on me.

Overall: 4.2 (out of 5.0) The beginning, middle, and some of the ending are that good.

Image credit: Goodreads

7 thoughts on “Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett”

    1. Thank you! I’m hoping to get back in the habit of semi-regular blogging. 🙂

  1. Exactly! I was so enjoying this novel – my first of Ann Patchett – and was really irritated by the ending, with the mother being let off the hook For her abandonment and everyone agreeing on her alleged saintliness. I also began to see Maeve over time as less of an intriguing and generous figure than as simply controlling of her happy-to-be manipulated brother. Enjoyed Danny’s character development and the “cat’s in the cradle” nature of his adulthood. Thanks for posting this!

    1. Thank you! I like your point on Maeve. There was a lot of really subtle character building in this novel and I wanted the ending to reflect that. I’ve heard good things about Bel Canto, and that will probably be the next Patchett book that I read.

  2. I agree about the confusing ending. Like a lot of books, the beginning and middle are solidly and slowly earned, while the end just abruptly tumbles into an unexpected shape that ties up loose ends, but not organically. The fact that one of the characters can buy the house because they suddenly become a rich movie star is not only unbelievable, but is preceded by almost no laying of groundwork. It was like it belonged in a different book. However, the multigenerational hold of the house did work for me.

    1. Yes, exactly. I wonder if there’s a way that ending could have felt earned without the book being excessively long.

  3. Considering the author said Mauve is the main character Danny is just telling her story, I felt Mauve’s character was underdeveloped. No relationships at all? No dating, no significant other, no close friends other than those she stayed with on holidays after she was banished to the attic? Or, was she really alone on those holidays pretending to be with “friends?” For her to the person the author claims is the central character of the novel, we certainly don’t know much. Like, why she refused to use up some of that education trust to advance her own education, or why remained in a job so beneath her intelligence level. ( I suspect it was due to her boss being a father like image who gave her things her father never did, emotionally) But, that story line was so understated. I do NOT feel it was too long a novel but too much unexplained.
    Still, I enjoyed it.

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