The Amazon tagline describes this novel by Ann Patchett as the story of a family that goes from poverty to riches to poverty and back to riches again. Well, yeah, but that hardly prepares us for the plot of this book. More than a few reviewers call it a fairy tale. I just didn’t see that. Patchett’s style is nearly hyperrealistic—fully developed characters rather than archetypes and minutely detailed descriptions. However, there is a wicked step-mother who horns her way into the majestic Dutch House. After the death of the father, this step-mother steals the house and the family fortune, then sends the rightful heirs into exile. There is nothing any lawyer can do about it. Hmm, maybe it is a fairy tale.
The rightful heirs are Maeve and Danny Conroy. Danny is our narrator and Maeve is his sister, seven years his senior. One reviewer points out that Danny may not have been the best choice as narrator; he isn’t the most inquisitive guy in the world. He misses so much, like the nanny was having an affair with Dad, and the housekeeping staff, Sandy and Jocelynn are sisters. But Patchett is too skilled to have made this choice randomly. It seems to me this is the story of a man half sleep walking through life, asking few questions, doing as he’s told, or as he’s programed to do. He forces himself through medical school and residency, even though he has no intention of ever practicing medicine, just to satisfy his sister’s desire for vengeance. (Sorry, no explanations; you’re just going to have to read it.) Late in the book we learn he bought a house without consulting his wife and presented it to her as a present, unaware until decades later that said house did not suit her at all. By that time even Danny recognizes the irony: this is exactly what his father did, giving the opulent Dutch House to his mother, a decision perhaps most responsible for driving her to abandon the family.
The book focuses on the relationship of these two exiled siblings Maeve and Danny. The scene where step-mother Andrea kicks them out of the house and fires the housekeeper and cook who have known them since childhood is particularly shocking. The reader can’t help but sympathize with the duo. At this point Maeve is already in her early 20s, graduated from college, living in her own apartment. Danny is a high school freshman soon to be packed off to Choate. The twin experiences of losing parents and beloved home so early in life binds them, resulting in a devotion they share with no one else. They begin a decades-long ritualistic practice: whenever together, they drive to their former domicile, park in the dark, late at night or early before dawn, smoke cigarettes (even after both had supposedly quit) and reminisce. It is a practice fueled with resentment and self-pity, and to be honest, it first made me uncomfortable, like watching someone pick at scabs. Then it began to bore me.
Okay, here come the spoilers!! Stop now if you don’t want to know what happens.
For me, the book got really interesting toward the end with the return of the prodigal mother. Elna Conroy had abandoned her husband and children in the early 60s to escape to India where she had intended to minister to the needs of the poor with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But she somehow got re-routed to Bombay where she found plenty of poor people to serve right there. Over the decades she traveled the world, living a life of poverty and service. When Maeve’s illness draws her out of hiding to reunite with her children, Danny is stunned to see how warmly she is greeted by Maeve and the former household staff, Sandy, Jocelynn, even the adulterous Fluffy. They all love her, they missed her, they admire her dedication to selfless service, they proclaim her a saint. Danny—who was too young when she left to have any clear memory of her—is nonplussed. He wants nothing to do with her but eventually—like the easy-going guy he is—he concedes to the many women in his life and makes an effort to welcome her back to the fold.
What is fascinating to me is the ultimate relationship of the two Mrs. Conroys. Elna wants to see the Dutch House one more time and she dares to do something Maeve and Danny never would: she walks up the driveway to meet step-mother Andrea. When she learns that Andrea has advanced dementia and is in need of a care giver, she volunteers for duty. Maeve is horrified, Danny is annoyed, but here she is, the perfect giver, presenting herself for canonization.
The two wives of the late Cyril Conroy would appear to be polar opposites: one was repulsed by the ostentatious display of money the Dutch House represented, the other was an unabashed gold digger. One spent a life of service to strangers, the other left her own husband’s children without means to support themselves, because, as she states, she was under no obligation to raise someone else’s children. Both were extremes, but were either capable of intimacy? Sure, Elna was friendly, chatty and beloved by many, but as Danny says, “Taking care of someone who doesn’t know you doesn’t make you a saint.” She abandoned her own children to do so, not once, but twice. And I guess you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean by that. Do watch for the two separate scenes when each woman mistakes Danny for his late father Cyril. I just liked them, finding the incidents meaningful and dramatic.
Likewise I found the ending to be satisfying and poignant. Danny sees a woman who reminds him of his sister, suddenly realizing it is his daughter May. It seems to indicate that the family will yet see another with the unmet potential of Maeve, whose brightness was clouded by misfortune and resentment. But now, with patience and forgiveness, that talent will blossom in another form. And the Dutch House itself goes on.