Turning ordinary stories extraordinary with ‘The Dutch House’

Monday, September 16, 2019 - 4:57pm

Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett Buy this photo
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Grudges are a funny thing — they can last for years, or be over within the span of a week. There is little to no correlation between the pettiness of the original offense and the length of the grudge. They’re a habit that make zero sense, and yet they remain a source of unnecessary strife in many of our lives. Ann Patchett’s newest release, “The Dutch House,” revolves around the familial grudges that can often drive the development of life as we know it. 

The story spans the lives of two siblings, Danny and Maeve Conroy, as they navigate life without a mother, a new life with their stepmother and, eventually, a life without any parents. Told from Danny’s perspective, it’s a book that emphasizes how little we actually know about the people who raise us. Danny and Maeve, for example, only begin to learn about their father after his death (and their subsequent expulsion from the family house.) It takes them years to finally understand why their mother abandoned them — Danny because he never thought to ask the necessary questions, and Maeve because she never really wanted to know the answer. As new information continues to reveal itself, Patchett continually forces her readers to consider what they actually know about the people who made them. How did they meet? Why did they get married? Why would a mother leave her two kids? 

We really only ever know what Danny knows, and he’s the epitome of an unreliable narrator. He’s a self-centered character, and even as he injects his revelations from the future into the stories he tells, there is still an air of suspicion as the reader takes Danny at his word. Though his circumstances are unique, it’s his conceited tendencies that makes him a relatable character. He goes through life believing that he and his sister alone are the only people who could possibly understand their situation. We’re all inclined to it, this assumption that we are the only people in the world who are suffering. 

Fictional stories based on the changes we experience as we grow up are a cliché, though for a good reason. Readers can connect with Danny at all stages of his life, as they reminisce over their twenties or sympathize with his struggles as a teen. What sets Patchett’s writing apart, though, is the difference in age between Danny the narrator and Danny the character. Danny the narrator is an omnipotent presence — in the midst of heated moments, Patchett inserts Danny’s reflections and feelings about the situation from years in the future. While reminiscing, he adds notes and thoughts to the action and conversations of the past. Eventually, the book begins to feel like Danny is simply having a conversation with himself, trying to figure out where things might have gone in a different direction. 

In these reflecting conversations, whether it’s with Maeve or Danny himself, it becomes increasingly obvious that the two characters never actually realized they held a grudge until it was staring them in the face, in the form of their contentious stepmother. Though years had passed, grudges can be tough to overcome, and Patchett eventually addresses the issue by making Danny and Maeve confront the subject of their grudge later in the future — a difficult task for many people, let alone those who might not even realize they still harbor negative feelings.

All families have their issues, some more than others, and Ann Patchett turns those of the Conroys into a story spanning whole lifetimes. It’s a common premise that Patchett executes well. She’s able to touch on a wide range of problems without losing her focus on the characters, while also deftly weaving in the way family roles change as we age. “The Dutch House” manages to take a seemingly boring story of family fighting and turn it into a universal truth.