Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House
by
Ann Patchett

Rating:

Danny and Maeve Conroy don’t belong in their magnificent childhood home anymore. Known as the Dutch House, it’s a three-story mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, built in 1922 by the wealthy Van Hoebeeks, and ultimately abandoned when the sole surviving Mrs. Van Hoebeek dies.

In 1946, Cyril Conroy buys the house with everything in it (at auction price), surprises his family, and marks the rise of his real estate empire.

How does a family adjust from having little to living in a house with housekeepers, a nanny and a ballroom on the third floor? Maeve loves it, especially when she hides in her enclosed window seat. Danny is born into it, but their mother, Elna’s unhappiness is a cloud over the family.

When Elna can no longer bear it, she leaves for India to help the needy and Cyril marries Andrea Smith, a domineering younger woman with two small daughters and an eye toward moving up in the world. Four years later, Cyril is dead and Andrea wants nothing to do with Danny and Maeve. Forced out, Maeve settles into her role of protective older sister and charts Danny’s course, with their limited funds.

For nearly thirty years, Danny and Maeve visit the house regularly, from across the street, in an effort to sort through their feelings about a mother who left them, a father who was hard to know, and of hatred for Andrea, who continues to live in the house. Their lives change, but they continue this “tradition” until one day, Maeve says, “I’m done with Andrea. I’m making a pledge to you right here. I’m done with this house. I’m not going back anymore.” Later, Danny realizes, “Habit is a funny thing. You might think you understand it, but you can never exactly see what it looks like when you’re doing it.”

The story is narrated by Danny, but it’s just as much about Maeve and her devotion to him and the house itself, which becomes its own character, a feature I always love. Their biggest struggle is with their mother’s choice to serve others in need, but not her own family. Does Elna help others because they need it more? Because she knows that her children will be okay without her? In a story that incorporates all the tough emotions, confronting the past and facing an uncertain future will become the siblings’ biggest tasks.

Cyril continues to have an impact on his children, even after he’s gone. Maeve and especially Danny come to understand and relate to a man who was often closed to his children. Their memories offer a satisfying glimpse into a father who cared more than he let on.

I loved this book. This is my fourth Ann Patchett book, so that makes me on my way to becoming a huge fan. I should note that I’m giving this one 4.5 stars only because I thought the finish was a little too neat, but I still highly recommend it.

For more books by Ann Patchett, check out the links below:

Bel Canto
Commonwealth – 5 stars from Book Club Mom
The Magician’s Assistant
The Patron Saint of Liars
Run
State of Wonder – 4 stars from Book Club Mom
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Taft
Truth and Beauty
What Now?

And for more about Ann Patchett and The Dutch House’s beautiful cover, visit her bookstore blog, Musings, part of Parnassas Books in Nashville, TN.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells pic
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by
Andrew Sean Greer

Rating:

What would you do if you discovered yourself living different lives during different times? What if, in these other lives, you had the chance to fix things, to point others towards happiness, or to alter your own life? What if you found a chance at happiness in one of these alternate lives, a chance that has been lost in your present life? These are some of the central questions Greta Wells must contemplate in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

I loved this very original story by Andrew Sean Greer, in which Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941. In her modern world, Greta has just lost her adult twin brother to AIDS. Her long-time lover, Nathan, has left her and Greta is impossibly lost. Feeling hopeless, she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy and is surprised to find herself living both similar and different lives in these earlier times. During this twelve-week period, Greta receives twenty-five procedures and cycles between her three “impossible” lives. Early on, Greta wonders, “So maybe I can perfect their lives. And maybe, while I’m missing, they can perfect mine.”

These lives all take place in her Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village and Greta finds things that are both familiar and unknown about her circumstances. In her 1918 life, she has been unfaithful, in 1941 she has been betrayed and in both she watches as her brother Felix struggles to find a way to reconcile his homosexuality with what the times expect of him. Greta sees the relief and euphoria of one war ending and understands how only she can know that another war is coming.

Greta describes the 1918 soldiers returning from war and celebrating the future:

These same soldiers would come home, never speaking of what they’d seen, and marry those girls and raise children, and they would send those children off to war again. With Germany, again. We would be here again, in this parlor singing this same song. I stood there, in wonder, at the madness of it all.

While this is technically a story about time travel with well-placed historical references that really take you there, it’s mostly a story of love, understanding, forgiveness and second chances. I think the author does a great job showing Greta’s desire to get it right with Nathan, in at least one of her lives. She works hard, too, to create happiness for Felix by steering him towards the right people and encouraging him to acknowledge his homosexuality to her. In addition, Greer shows Felix’s personal pain of not fitting in, but desperately trying to do the right thing. These double-layered efforts fit just right with the twin relationship between Greta and Felix.

I’ve read some reviews complaining that the story is confusing. Its complexity did not bother me and, once you get the characters and their lives down, the story drives itself. I felt invested in all three time periods.

Here are some of the things I liked about the book:

  • Greta’s relationship with Nathan in 1941. Her capacity for forgiveness in this time period is very moving.
  • Learning about Patchin Place in New York. It’s fun to imagine what this part of Greenwich Village looked like then and Google Maps shows a great picture of the gated entrance.
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place now
Patchin Place now
  • The secret key and room in the Washington Square arch.
  • Greer’s use of three different clocks at the beginning of each chapter, with different times on each face. I can’t figure out what the different times mean, but I like thinking about them anyway.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“There almost has to be a heaven, so there can be a place where all things meet.”

“We are so much more than we assume.”

“What is a perfect world except for the one that needs you?”

“Mark your hour on earth.”

“I understood nothing, Felix. But it was a great show.”

A little bit of fantasy, a little bit of history, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of hope and understanding – this is a great read!

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