Patchett is a connoisseur of imperfect characters who are compelling mixes of the saintly, the clueless, the wise and loving, the selfish and manipulative—characters the reader can’t help but care about because they are just so human.
In The Dutch House, Patchett uses the grand VanHoebeek’s mansion that came on the market after World War II as the spine of the multi-generational story. When Cyril Conroy buys the Dutch house (with all the VanHoebeek’s personal possessions and three servants included) as a surprise for his wife Elna, it is a cruel gift to the quiet, would-be nun.
The changes brought about by moving into the Dutch house eventually send Elna fleeing to Bombay to work with Mother Teresa (who is actually in Calcutta). After she leaves, the Conroy children, Maeve and Danny, are in the capable, loving hands of the housekeeper, the cook, and the nanny, Fiona (aka Fluffy), who is a warm, humorous presence from before the beginning of the story through the end, three generations later.
Danny, as the narrator, shows us life in the Dutch house. After their mother, who has been disappearing for increasingly long spells, seems perhaps not to be coming back ever, he and Maeve wonder if she is dead. Probably, their dad tells them. She probably died in India. Information which is neither comforting nor edifying.
Then young and attractive Andrea begins to come and go in the Dutch house. The children are left on their own to figure out what this means. Maeve becomes suddenly and seriously ill with diabetes. Despite all this, young Danny still feels secure and loved by the servants and especially his sister, who has taken on a quasi-motherly role.
When their dad marries Andrea, she brings two little girls, Norma and Bright, into the Dutch House. Maeve and Danny come to love the little girls, but Andrea—in a vein of casual cruelty, gives Maeve’s room to Norma when Maeve goes off to college. And when Cyril dies of a heart attack shortly after Maeve graduates, Andrea calls Maeve and says of Danny: “Come and get him.” Thus Danny and Maeve are summarily banished from the Dutch house and Norma and Bright. Equally shocking, Maeve and Danny discover Andrea now owns everything: the Dutch house and all of Cyril’s real estate and investments. Danny and Maeve are left with Maeve’s car and a foundation established for the education of Cyril and Andrea’s four children.
Thus begins Danny and Maeve’s period of watching the Dutch house and plotting. In Maeve’s car, they take up posts, smoking and talking, with Maeve planning ways for Danny to use up the foundation money by the longest, most costly education imaginable. And from this revenge plot, Danny eventually and unwittingly becomes a doctor, when all he wants to do is get a little money together so he can start investing in real estate and follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Danny’s girlfriend, Celeste, in training to be the best doctor’s wife ever, discovers she has married a landlord instead of a doctor—repeating Elna’s pattern of discovering her husband was not who she thought he was. And Danny ironically repeats family history too by surprising Celeste with a beautifully restored brownstone in Manhattan not at all to her taste.
Over the years, through various bits of information, Danny and Maeve gradually come to understand their mother is still alive, living and doing good works among the homeless in the city. Danny struggles with how to feel about this, but Maeve embraces the woman she still calls Mommy.
Near the end of the story, Elna convinces her children, as only she could, to go with her to visit the Dutch House. This causes a tectonic shift among the characters. Now demented, Andrea is enormously comforted by Danny, who she believes is Cyril returned to her. Ever compassionate (except perhaps to her young children) Elna moves back into the Dutch house (unchanged all these years) and works with Norma (who actually did want to become a doctor) as Andrea’s caretakers. Maeve, who feels abandoned by her mother once again, dies of what is surely meant to be taken as a broken heart.
As the story ends, Danny and Norma become siblings of sorts (“a half-sister from a second marriage,” as Danny cautiously puts it). Elna begins to disappear among the poor again. Danny finally gives up his rage at his mother and replaces it with “familiarity.” Danny and Celeste divorce. Fluffy visits the Dutch House now and then and sleeps in her old room above the garage. And May—Maeve’s namesake—gains fame and fortune as an actress and ultimately buys the Dutch house and brings back parties reminiscent of the VanHoebeek era. And the portrait of Maeve, originally painted to stare down the VanHoebeck’s portraits hanging across the room, looks to all the world like May. There’s a sense of rightness about this ending. Finally, the Dutch house has come into its own as the Conroy house.
The Dutch House is a rich and conversation-provoking story showing us the human condition in fascinating particulars.
— Sharelle Moranville