The Dutch House was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, which is how I became aware of it, but it was the title that really drew me to it. Initially, the title reminded me of one of my favourite books, The Miniaturist, because it’s set in Amsterdam, but sadly, The Dutch House is set in America, and has very little to do with the Netherlands. Still, I wanted to read it regardless because my interest was piqued.
The house in the title is a grand mansion in Pennsylvania, so named because it was built by a Dutch couple. The story itself follows narrator Danny and his sister Maeve, both of whom grow up at the Dutch House. After their mother abandons the family, their father introduces them to Andrea, who later becomes their stepmother. This story definitely has some fairytale/folkloric elements, and the evil stepmother trope is certainly present here. Andrea never shows any kind of affection towards Danny and Maeve, and disaster strikes for the pair when their father dies and it is revealed that he left all of his possessions, including his real estate company and the Dutch House, to Andrea. Maeve having already been pushed out by Andrea, it is Danny who finds himself in the lurch. The story continues to follow Danny and Maeve over the next three decades. Time passes quickly in this book, but the fixation with the Dutch House remains consistent.
This book certainly wasn’t what I expected — for some reason I expected something more focused on artists, more focused on historical elements, and with more importance placed on the Netherlands. The Dutch House itself obviously is central to the story, but the fact that it was Dutch felt more coincidental than anything. The historical element (the early parts of this book are set in the 1950s, and it goes all the way up to around the turn of the millennium) was also a bit disappointing for me. Despite the shifts in time, I didn’t really get the feeling that time was actually progressing around the characters. The characters themselves aged well, and with each jump in time I felt like the characters became more mature, but the setting around them felt fairly static. Perhaps because this book is so character driven, we got to see little of the outside world, but I would have liked to have had a bit more focus on the time periods and setting to help me keep track of time passing because it almost felt to me as though the characters were ageing while the world stood still. My assumption that art would play a major role in this book was based on the painting on the cover, but obviously, I was wrong. The painting is somewhat important to the characters, but it’s not something that gets dwelt on, or even considered for a large portion of the book.
So, having talked about all the ways this book didn’t live up to my expectations, I want to get a bit more positive! The characters were really interesting and well-written, and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven stories. The characters are all very distinct, and develop well throughout the book. I really liked Maeve, and her relationship with Danny. Adult sibling relationships are something I feel go under-explored in literature, but because Maeve and Danny were left without parents at a fairly young age, they form a really close bond. Maeve becomes a surrogate parent of sorts for Danny, encouraging him to go to medical school (although this was as much an exercise in revenge upon stepmother Andrea as it was to benefit Danny). Andrea was a brilliant evil stepmother figure — she wasn’t evil to the point of caricature, but she was callous, uncaring, and self-absorbed which I’m sure many readers who have a bad relationship with a step-parent can relate to. She certainly didn’t force Danny and Maeve to sweep the floors, but she did a brilliant job of making them feel unwelcome, and diminishing the importance of their relationship with their father.
I also really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s writing style in this novel, and I’m definitely going to look at getting hold of some of her other novels, because she has quite a back catalogue to get through (I think The Dutch House is her 8th novel?). The narrative voice was really strong, and Danny was a great character to see the story through. As much as I loved Maeve’s character, I think it was the right choice to use Danny’s eyes to see the story through. Danny seemed far less emotional than Maeve, so it was interesting to see the different ways they reacted. Maeve was the driving force throughout the earlier parts of the novel, until Danny’s desire to get into real estate burst into life towards the middle of the narrative, at which point his desires started to push the novel forwards more which was an interesting transition for me.
Overall, I would recommend this book, but not for the reasons I thought I would have before reading it! Let this be a lesson for me to research books a bit better before I buy them. Though I enjoyed this book a lot regardless, it was really different to what I was expecting. If you like character-driven books, if you like strong sibling relationships and fairytale-ish elements, this book is for you. I loved the way the house itself was the central point of the book, with the characters revolving around it. If you’ve read this book, let me know what you thought!