Book review: Ann Patchett's The Dutch House is a fairy tale on sibling bonds and an evil stepmother

The Dutch House looks at homes, unhousing and how families are put together and disassembled. PHOTO: BLOOMSBURY



By Ann Patchett

Bloomsbury/Paperback/337 pages/$27.95/Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

The place where you grow up has an inexorable hold on you - especially in the event of your untimely eviction from it.

American author Ann Patchett plumbs this in her eighth novel, The Dutch House, which looks at homes, unhousing and how families are put together and disassembled.

Danny and Maeve Conroy grow up in the Dutch House, a country mansion once owned by a now-extinct family, the VanHoebeeks, outside of Philadelphia. Their mother vanished without explanation in their early childhood, which their father believes triggered Maeve's lifelong battle with diabetes.

When the sinister Andrea enters their lives and their father's affections, lingering "like a virus", the siblings find themselves edged out of their inheritance.

In the next few decades, despite carving out rounded lives of their own, they return over and over again to the house they lost, sitting in the car outside, watching their stepmother turn on the lights and pass by the windows - an obsession only the two of them understand.

For all its fairy-tale trappings - evil stepmother, displaced children - The Dutch House is eminently practical. Patchett is uninterested in the melodrama of sentiment, reserving her fascination for the nitty gritty of how people get by.

Characters take up prosaic jobs - Danny in real estate, Maeve in accounting - and their longest, most steadfast relationships are with their former servants, whose pity at their plight transforms over the years into friendship.

Patchett is a clear-eyed, unshowy writer with an unerring knack for depicting familial ties - here, the bond between siblings - and in her hands, the Conroys' house of dreams is exquisitely realised.

Danny is a tad jejune as narrators go. Of more interest are the women who surround him, from doughty, selfless Maeve to his wife Celeste, whose single-minded pursuit of marital security echoes Andrea's.

Ultimately, this is a tale worn down by the drag of the mundane. There is no happy ending, not even for the villain. There is only time, displacing everybody from what they believed was theirs - houses, bodies and lives.

If you liked this, read: Bonjour, Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, translated by Heather Lloyd (Penguin Classics, 1954, reissued 2013, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). Spoilt teenager Cecile lives a carefree existence with her widowed father and his mistresses, until one summer on the French Riviera, when he decides to remarry and she schemes to unseat his new wife.

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