“Jesus,” Celeste said later when I was trying to tell her the story. “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel. You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get. Do you ever get tired of reminiscing?”
Celeste, in Ann Patchett’s novel, newly out in paperback, is the wife of Danny, the narrator and brother of Maeve, the Hansel and Gretel of her remark. She is not happy that her husband is so hung up on his sister and the “Dutch House” about which he talks constantly – the house of their shared childhood. It was the Dutch House because it had been the property of the Van Hoebeeks and the siblings’ parents had bought it, leaving the mansion unchanged – the same Van Hoebeek family paintings on the wall, the same furniture, the same Dutch books on the bookshelves.
The one addition was a portrait painting of Maeve aged ten, which graces the cover of the book. The painting itself has a backstory, something more to reminisce about.
The children were not the only people obsessed with their shared past. The family servants Sandy and Jocelyn, and Fluffy, who had an affair with Danny and Maeve’s father and had to leave hurriedly, all flit in and out of each other’s lives over the fifty years of the story, dreaming of a past when they were all together before the wicked step-mother came into the House. Andrea – the step-mother – was a cuckoo, evicting everyone once her new husband had died. Nobody really understood their attraction and nobody really knew what had happened to his first wife, the mother of the children, other than vaguely that she had gone to India. Was she even alive? We would find out.
Danny and Maeve were thrown together. She takes a job beneath her talents and stays there, and stays there for decades with just the hint of a possible romance with the firm’s owner. Danny goes to study medicine at Columbia. They’d been cut off from their inheritance as their father left everything to the step-mother save for a line in his will saying the Estate would support him through his education – and medicine offered the longest and most expensive course so he could get at least some of the inheritance. Having become a doctor he realises that his real interests lay in following his late father into the property business, initially buying broken-down property in broken-down Black slums knowing that eventually gentrification would happen. Not that he was a bad landlord at all. He’d learned how to treat people right from his mother who would let people off their rent and sometimes bring food for her tenants if they were going through a particularly hard time.
So what do we learn over the fifty years? I’m not sure, in the end. Many people look back on their past, the roots of their happiness or unhappiness in childhood, but few park up outside the house they were brought up in just to look at it over and over down the decades. Towards the end, everyone still lving is back in the Dutch House (it would be too much of a giveaway to explain how) and Sandy says “The ghosts are what I come for. I think about Jocelyn when I’m here, the way we were then. We were all so young… We were still our best selves.” Maybe that, then.
Ann Patchett is a successful American novelist. Finding the town she lived in without a bookshop, she opened one, using her own fame as a magnet to attract customers and visiting writers. She is best known for Bel Canto, after this it is definately on my TBR list.
The Dutch House is available from firstname.lastname@example.org for £8.99 post free in the UK.