In 1945, Brooklyn-born real-estate entrepreneur Cyril Conroy purchases the Dutch House in Elkins Park, outside Philadelphia, and presents it to his wife. She hates it, and ultimately abandons her son Danny, and daughter Maeve. Five years later Conroy remarries. The second Mrs. Conroy adores the house, but not the children, whom she gradually cuts out of the family. Grown-up Danny narrates, remembering his sister as an unswerving friend and protector.
Patchett’s prose is confident, unfussy and unadorned. I can’t pluck out one sentence worth quoting, but how effective they are when woven together—these translucent lines that envelop you like a spider’s web. It can feel old-fashioned: her style, her attachment to a very traditional kind of storytelling — a vision of the novel as a Dutch house, with a clarity and transparency of purpose and method, a refusal of narrative tricksiness. But like the family’s Dutch house, it’s an enduring structure, which gives an added dimension to the references in the text — its way of gesturing toward a lineage ... Our willingness to serve each other represents the best of us, according to Patchett, and it is almost as if she wants to take the notion of motherhood and release its power into the commons — what if we were willing to mother one another, mother strangers? But she is also always full of warnings about the self-abnegation it requires, especially of women — and never more clearly than in this new novel ... 'The love between humans is the thing that nails us to this earth,' Patchett wrote in her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — a belief her new novel shares but shades with caution. There’s no missing the statement’s brutal, brilliant ambivalence.
A timeless plot ... Each character’s role, from victim to villain, seems as clear as the sunlight flooding those marble floors. Over time, however, sharp distinctions are blurred by a series of well-timed revelations and deftly placed subplots. Yet the novel’s focus on the Conroys’ main drama remains tight. The Dutch House is, as a result, one of Ms. Patchett’s most straightforward novels and one of her best, artfully paced, gently ironic, a feat of portraiture rather than melodrama ... As always, the author draws us close to her protagonists swiftly and gracefully ... the sense of intimacy created is immediate and enduring. This is Ms. Patchett’s great skill, and it transcends any setting ... far more than a parable of forgiveness, never mind its rhapsodic ending.
This novel takes a winding road through the forest and doesn’t rush to a finish, nor is the ending wholly surprising. But if you allow yourself to walk along with Patchett, you’ll find riches at the end of the trail ... Patchett pulls this off both through her conviction and through her willingness not to wink at or be coy about what she’s doing. There are even direct references to well-loved childhood classics ... The power of fairy tales is the way in which they grapple with some of the verities of human life — kindness and cruelty, love and hate. So it is in this novel ... Unlike a fairy tale, The Dutch House is peopled not with archetypes but with distinctive and believable characters ... It’s a rare novel that examines the experience of a close and dependent brother-sister relationship — far more often, we see tales of same-gender siblings. If sometimes Maeve and Danny seem a little too good to be true...their devotion is also quite moving ... There are very few sharp edges in this novel beyond Andrea’s central villainy and I periodically found myself wishing for a narrative that was, if not searing, a little less smooth ...That said, what I (occasionally) wished for isn’t what Patchett was trying to achieve. The heroes and heroines of fairy tales face mighty challenges but they almost always make it through in the end. In The Dutch House, all’s well that ends well — and that’s a pleasure.