Book Reviews

Of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and melancholy realism

I listened to the audiobook of The Dutch House for well over two months. I am quite slower with audiobooks than physical ones, but two months was staggering even for me. But going into it, I knew this was going to be a raw, emotional read that will stay with me forever.

Writing about The Dutch House in this article also took a long time. Again surprising, considering how fast I am to review a book I finish. But this book was fodder for a lot of emotional thoughts that I had to sit with and process.

The Dutch House spans across five decades. It follows Danny and Maeve Conroy as they navigate through being born rich, becoming poor, and getting their life together again.

Their father Cyril Conroy, a property tycoon, had surprised his wife Elna with the Dutch House. Called so less for its architecture and more for its former inhabitants the Van Hoebeks, the Dutch House is a looming structure with huge storefront windows and a lot of stairs through the multiple floors of it. Years later, Maeve tells Danny about how it was the house that drove their mother to leave them.

And their mother leaving is how their father meets and marries the widow Andrea, every bit the evil stepmother we see in pop culture. Andrea slowly schemes her way through the finances and once Cyril passes away, has Danny and Maeve cut off.

Newly penniless, the siblings have to figure out how to navigate through life when all they have is each other. In the years that follow, Maeve continues working at as an accountant of a frozen vegetables distributor, a lowly job for someone as talented as her. She encourages Danny to pursue medicine in Columbia as a means to bilk the trust fund their father has set up for him, the only money Andrea wasn’t able to take away from them.

In the intervening years, the siblings often end up in Elkins Park, on the street where the Dutch House stands, staring at the house of their youth. It’s in this station wagon parked outside that they go over every moment of their childhood, reliving the past with every drag of their cigarettes.

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside…” 

Right up to the last page, it is Maeve who’s Danny’s support system. They have each others’ backs and it’s them against the world. This book is a testament to how beautiful and moving sibling solidarity can be.

Every single time Maeve and Danny end up in the car outside the Dutch House, they go over the past together–the house, a looming figure both physically and and in their childhood memories. They take emotional inventory together, but as Danny himself thinks, the present has a way of colouring the past.

“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” 

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it,” continues Danny’s internal monologue, narrated brilliantly by Tom Hanks. This line stood out most to me, for never have I related to a line more. When you linger on the past so much in the present, is it just emotional inventory? Or are you fetishising your unfortunate childhood, a pity porn viewing party for one? 

Melancholy realism in books

Emotional, realistic stories mostly about dysfunctional families have always been an easy sell for me. But it’s hard to slot it under one genre. Such stories inevitably end up under literary fiction. That’s why I always tell people my favourite genre is an intersection of literary fiction and family drama.

But reading this review of The Dutch House on The Guardian, I’ve finally found a phrase for my treasured sub-genre–melancholy realism. It’s perfect for this book and I know I’m going to be using while describing my love for books of this type.

And it’s melancholy realism that this book is full of. It’s a highly realistic and careful exploration of how reconciliation with an unhappy childhood can be difficult for adult children of a dysfunctional parental unit. It’s definitely not a story of redemption, but rather, of sitting with the discomfort of your past and understanding that it’s a part of who you are now, whether you’ve reconciled with it or not.

“And so I made the decision to change. It might seem like change was impossible, given my nature and my age, but I understood exactly what there was to lose. It was chemistry all over again. The point wasn’t whether or not I liked it. The point was it had to be done.” 

I’ve only listened to the audiobook of this book so far, but I’m definitely going to buy the hardcover at some point for the copious amounts of re-reading this magnificent tale deserves.

6 thoughts on “Of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and melancholy realism

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