Under the surface of fine cracks lies ...

24 November 2019 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times (24/11/2019)

The Dutch House ****
Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury, R290

"I had a mother who left when I was a child," says Danny. "I didn't miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen, the ship in the waves of the grandfather clock rocking the minutes away."

When Ann Patchett's last novel, Commonwealth, was published in 2016, she told an interviewer that she had realised she was writing the same book over and over. The settings and characters of her stories may vary, she pointed out, but essentially she was always retelling the story of her own parents' divorce and remarriage.

Commonwealth was a subtly devastating novel about two step-families in California played out over five decades. Once again, The Dutch House, her new novel, revolves around divorce and step-families, with lives that unfold over five decades. Once again, it is subtly devastating.

Patchett constructs her stories with ceramic smoothness. It is not until we are far into them that we become aware of the craqueleur under the surface that will shatter with a stroke of her pen.

There can be few archetypes in life and lore more powerful than that of the stepmother. So when Danny Conroy and his older sister, Maeve, are summoned downstairs to meet their father's "new friend", the first worrisome notes vibrate through the story.

The siblings live with their vague and unknowable father, Cyril, in an ornate mansion in Pennsylvania, known as the Dutch House. It is a rich man's house, built by the VanHoebeek family, who made their fortune selling cigarettes in the first World War, and who lost that fortune as quickly as they made it.

"Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince's gambling debts."

Mr Conroy makes his own fortune as a property developer and buys the house and its contents for his wife, Elna, who detests its grandiosity. She especially dislikes the belongings left behind by the VanHoebeeks, in particular their portraits in the drawing room. She abandons the family and disappears to India to work with the poor.

In time her husband divorces her and meets a pretty young widow, Andrea, who has two daughters of her own. Her elfin blondeness belies a diamond-hard resolve. "Andrea lingered like a virus," notes Danny. They never do understand why their father marries her, but he does, and they loathe her.

Like a fairy story of old, when Cyril Conroy drops dead of a heart attack she banishes her stepchildren from their gilded home and swipes their inheritance from beneath them. It is in the kiln of this loss that the brother and sister are fired. For ever more "we pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father". From the kiln, of course, they emerge slightly misshapen.

The only part of their inheritance that survives Andrea's theft is an education trust, so Maeve, who has completed her college degree, insists that Danny study medicine lengthily and expensively at Columbia. In this way they get some benefit owed to them. Danny doesn't want to be a doctor but he complies.

And so the years pass. Danny and Maeve live their lives but do not thrive. They almost, but do not quite, fulfil their potential. Even as they age, they continue to rely on each other. 

"It's like you're Hansel and Gretel," says Danny's exasperated wife. "You just keep walking through the dark wood holding hands no matter how old you get."

And then their long-lost mother returns. And with a tap Patchett fractures the story into pieces. How she shapes this denouement, the effect Elna's return has on Danny and Maeve, is so wise and so unexpected we cannot tear our eyes away from the page. @michelemagwood