Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

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 Patchett’s views on “ethical” abandonment, which makes me suspect the conclusion is in service to her storytelling goals more than the characters.

I keep putting “ethical” in quotes 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 doesn’t meet her ethical standards, but there’s no reason she couldn’t 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.

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