Love & Loss:
This book finds itself on every list of Best of 2019, capturing with compassion the upheavals in the lives of the Conroy siblings over five decades. At the centre of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, is a beautiful glass mansion that seems to take away the happiness of those who reside in it, even as they revel in its magnificence. Patchett describes it like a fairytale castle: “Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.”
A taciturn real estate developer and builder, Cyril Conroy, surprises his wife Elna with the purchase of the ostentatious house that belonged to a Dutch family. When all the unfortunate Van Hoebeeks are dead, the bank sells the house with its lavish furniture and belongings—including a portrait of the former owners– and, strangely enough, a domestic help called Fluffy. Elna is the kind of woman who works tirelessly for the poor and is appalled by this luxury. Conroy employs two sisters, Sandy and Jocelyn, to look after the kids, Maeve and Danny, since the mother keeps escaping from the house, and eventually, leaves forever, ostensibly to help the poor in India, because she believes she has “no business in a place like that, all those fireplaces and staircases, all those people waiting on me”.
Danny (also the narrator of the story) is only three and too young to remember his mother, but Maeve, at ten, is deeply traumatized by her mother’s abandonment, and develops severe diabetes. If this was not disturbing enough, Conroy marries a scheming woman called Andrea, who has two little daughters of her own.
When their father dies suddenly, without leaving a will, Andrea takes over the business and the house, and ruthlessly throws her step children out. The brilliant Maeve has to give up further studies and starts working with a frozen vegetables business, but taking advantage of the father’s trust fund for their education, she pushes Danny into studying medicine, even though his heart is in the real estate business.
Maeve’s personal life, apart from her unbreakable bond with Danny, is not dwelt upon, but he marries early against his better judgment. The pretty blonde, Celeste, who appears to be charming and outspoken when he meets her on a train, turns out to be a clingy woman, with no other ambition except to marry a rich man. Her inexplicable antipathy towards Maeve tears Danny between the two women he loves.
A lot happens in the lives of Maeve and Danny, but Patchett’s elegant prose is not in the least melodramatic. The grown-up Maeve’s stoic acceptance of whatever ugliness life throws at her, her large-hearted capacity to offer love and forgiveness, makes her an endearing heroine.
The siblings make it a ritual to drive over to the house and imagine what goes on behind the glass walls, otherwise they are devoid of self-pity, considering what their parents’ neglect and wicked stepmother put them through. Even the minor characters like Danny’s mentor, Andrea’s daughters and fiercely loyal Conroy staff are portrayed with a great deal of warmth. The Dutch House may not be a page-turning thriller, and has sense of melancholy running through its pages, but it is difficult to put the book down.
The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett