My Rating: ★★½
Aside from having all the elements I usually love in contemporary fiction (family saga, fairytale vibe, historical setting), The Dutch House was also my most anticipated read from the Women’s Prize longlist, so I’m doubly disappointed at how little I turned out to like it.
And it’s not for lack of trying, either. I remember finishing Part 2 of the book (there are three parts) and thinking, “The characters are still flat and I’m still not sure what the plot is, but maybe it’ll get better…?” Sadly, it didn’t. After finishing the book, I even put off writing a review in hopes that it would “age” better in my mind, but to no avail—The Dutch House remained firmly mediocre.
It didn’t start out that way, though. At the beginning I could still see how it might turn out to be a 4-star read. The world of the novel was easy to plunge into, especially since the shape of the story is familiar. We have a set-up straight out of a fairytale: a beautiful and mysterious house, an absent-minded father, an evil stepmother, and a brother and sister à la Hansel and Gretel. The plot revolves mainly around the relationship between the siblings—Danny, the narrator, and Maeve, his elder sister by seven years—as they struggle to survive with only each other as family.
I usually enjoy fairytale spin-offs, so I had no problem with these tropes. What I did have a problem with was that they remained little more than that. As the story progressed, the characters behave exactly as you’d expect them to—especially Andrea, the beautiful and evil stepmother, who behaves so stereotypically that she might as well join the ranks of Disney stepmothers. Plus, the main characters were so passive that they weren’t so different from who they were as children. We’re talking about some forty years here, and had it not been for the change of external circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to tell 15-year-old Maeve and 50-year-old Maeve apart.
I think the flatness of the characters can be traced back to the lack of plot, which can be summarized in two points: 1) Maeve and Danny are thrown out of the Dutch house. 2) They pine for the Dutch house over the next thirty-something years. Clearly the heart of the story, despite all the changes that occurred in their lives, remains their abruptly-ended childhood at the Dutch house; but the emotional resonance of this was all wrung out by the first third of the novel. The next two-thirds have the feel of a group of long-time friends recycling the same stories and anecdotes to each other ad nauseam. To reiterate what Celeste, Danny’s wife, tells him: “Jesus. 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?”
Aside from the characters and the plot, I also had a problem with the portrayal of women here. It was grating to see how they all seemed to exist solely to care for other people (i.e., Danny). Even Maeve, whom Danny respects and adores, is depicted as brilliant but with no ambition of her own: she consistently downplays her talents, works at a job far beneath her where she feels “indispensable” to the male owner, and does the books for Danny’s real estate business. Danny himself describes his wife Celeste as having “committed herself to smoothening my path and supporting my life”. The other significant characters are the cook, housekeeper, and nanny of the Dutch house, who consistently swoop in like fairy godmothers when the siblings are in need. Their doubly disadvantaged position (women, working class) was never problematised.
In an interview with Time magazine, Patchett seems to address this point by saying that she had little difficulty writing Danny’s point of view because she’s known “many men who are smart and charming and funny and interesting, who have no understanding of the fact that their whole life is built on the shoulders of the women who carry them around”. However, in my opinion, choosing Danny as the narrator was the least effective way to get this point across. The novel might have been more insightful had it been told from Maeve’s perspective.
The most exasperating part, though, was the depiction of motherhood in the story. Patchett presents the readers with two exemplars of motherhood: Andrea, the evil stepmother, and Elna, Maeve and Danny’s birth mother. Clearly Andrea is the ‘bad’ mother, but Patchett tries to forward a “nuanced” view of motherhood with Elna. It’s true that Elna abandons her children early on in the novel, but she does it for a Noble Cause: to help the poor in India.
Oh, please. Spare me. This seems to imply that the only way a woman can be considered ‘good’ despite abandoning her children is through 1) caring for other people, especially the disadvantaged; 2) living a life of poverty; and 3) having a history as a nun, because apparently it cannot be emphasized enough how ‘saintly’ she is. As if women need more impossible standards to live up to. I was more moved by Woodson’s commentary on motherhood in Red at the Bone, which deals with the similar theme of the absent mother, but with far more nuance and insight.
Overall, I was underwhelmed by The Dutch House. Its characters were flat and passive, the plot was virtually nonexistent, and its portrayal of women was problematic. But I’m clearly in the minority here. A lot of other readers loved this, so I’d still recommend this to fans of family sagas and historical fiction. This is my first read from Patchett, so while I won’t be foregoing her works completely, I’m inclined to approach her books with more caution. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 20-22, 2020