The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
Read March 2020
Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebech in 1922 built a unique house on 200 acres of farmland on the outskirts of Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia , using their fortune made in wholesale distribution of cigarettes in WWI. Over time their fortunes change and they slowly sell of acreage to pay debts and upkeep. Mr. Van Hoebech dies in 1940; his wife passes in 1945. The house and contents went back to the bank but Fluffy, the daughter of the cook and driver for the Van Hoebechs, continued living in the apartment over the garage, commissioned to watch over the house.
Enter Cyril Conroy, a soldier in WWII who has lived peacefully with his wife and two small children in a small apartment on a nearby military base. Cyril is beginning to make investments in real estate. A deal gone really well allows him to buy the Dutch House, as it is always known, in 1946 and he moves his wife and children to the house. They hire Fluffy to be a nanny and helper to Mrs. Conroy.
We learn this background from our narrator and son of Cyril, Danny, who provides his family’s long story with this house.
We learn that the Cyril bought the house without any input from his wife. She finds the change from a small apartment on base to this large home complete with hired help disorienting. The Conroy couple change nothing in the house, keeping in place all the furnishings and possessions left by the Van Hoebechs. The only addition made is the portrait of daughter Maeve which is hung across the room from the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebech and was painted when she was about ten years old because the original subject, her mother, refused to sit for a portrait.
We learn that Danny and Maeve’s mother left them after about a year in the house, when Danny is three and Maeve is ten, and never returned. The abandonment nearly literally kills Maeve who developed type-I diabetes and ends up in a coma. Danny’s memories of his mother are sparse given his young age when his mother left.
Cyril eventually marries Andrea who moves into the Dutch House with her two daughters. In fairly short order, and with no obvious objection of Cyril (at least heard by Danny) Andrea effectively displaces Maeve, who has just started college, from the household. When Cyril dies of a heart attack, Andrea sends Danny to live with his sister who has just graduated from college and has a small apartment funded by her new job.
Danny’s narration tells how he and Maeve react to this predicament and over the years and decades live their lives. Danny joins Maeve’s habit of regularly looking at the house from a vantage point across the street from the house in Maeve’s parked car.
The narration weaves back and forth in time slowly dispensing Danny and Maeve’s story pre- and post-Andrea. Since the narration is only from Danny’s perspective that’s the only view on this history that we are allowed by the narrator.
Their story is an interesting one. Maeve wages war on Andrea by seeking to drain an education fund set up by Cyril—for Danny and Andrea’s two daughters but not Maeve. All of Maeve’s feelings about this situation can’t be revealed to us but Patchett gives the reader a chance to ponder them—especially as Danny and one of the daughters attend Medical School, but Cyril provides for no further funds for education for Maeve. We can only imagine he didn’t think it necessary as she already had more education than most young women her age.
Danny can’t remember his mother, but he can readily describe his close relationship with Maeve who played a motherly role for Danny after their mother leaves. Their relationship deepens after Danny is sent to live with her. We also learn this relationship is tested when Danny and Maeve’s mother comes back into the scene.
Since Danny’s mother left him at age three, he has limited ability to understand the motivation for that event. This incomplete picture of the circumstances provides the reader an opportunity to consider why a mother would abandon her children and how the time period of the story could influence the situation.
In contrast, Danny has a very special bond with his father for the few years they had together. Cyril took Danny with him on Saturdays when he collected rent from his tenants. Danny develops his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps from these times together. Danny is aware that Maeve’s relationship with her father is much more limited and includes the stark direction “move on” during Maeve’s grave illness following her mother’s departure.
The descriptions Patchett provides of house known as The Dutch House through Danny give us a vivid sense of how extraordinary it was. It’s then quite believable that Andrea could be very driven to live in that house which she occupies until her death. It’s quite believable that Maeve and Danny could spend many hours looking at the house from across the street. It evoked in this reader the memories of a special house in the reader’s own past and how strong the memory of the essence of that house remains to this day. They say “home is where the heart is”. For Danny and Maeve, that home was irreparably disrupted and The Dutch House describes their long journey dealing with their personal catastrophes. Are they able to “move on” as Cyril instructed Maeve? You will need to read The Dutch House to learn the answer.