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review 2019-11-28 20:37
Interesting tale of family dynamics and life choices
The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

The Dutch House-Anne Patchett, author; Tom Hanks, narrator

The audiobook of The Dutch House is read by Tom Hanks. He reads it in one voice so it is often hard to delineate characters, but he allows the story to be told without making himself a character in the novel, as so many narrators do when they either over emote or attempt to be more important in their interpretation than the author intended. Still, at times, it was difficult to follow the narrative because the character remained unidentified and indistinguishable until the dialogue moved on.

The novel is a detailed account of a house and its relationship to the families that dwelt within it. It is about the relationship between the residents, as well, the parents and children, the siblings and step-siblings, the mother and step-mother, the generations that followed, one after another. The book takes place over five decades, but it is hard to tell that until the end.

As the history of the house and the families plays out, the personalities of the characters comes to light. Their foibles and their strengths are revealed. The way their life choices resonate throughout the years, affecting the lives of the characters that come after, as well, is well illustrated. Sometimes the characters seem bland, but their reactions seem authentic, in many ways, as they will seem familiar to the reader who has found him or herself in similar situations. The author shows insight into the emotional responses and the depth of the descriptions makes the reader understand the reasoning behind the character’s behavior, even if they  might disagree with the choices or actions taken.

Because the timeline is often sporadic, interspersed with anecdotal stories of the character’s lives, it is difficult to tell where and when an event described took place, or how many years had passed, until some additional fact was revealed. Perhaps a print copy would have been easier to follow than an audio.

The book clearly exposes the differences in the way people treat their children and the cruelty of some step-parents. It illustrates how greed and grudges control lives beyond their own and how history often repeats itself. It is about motherhood; it is about compassion and the choices in life that we make that will ultimately have an effect, not only on ourselves, but on others as well, down through the generations.

While some times, the author truly gets inside the heads of the characters, showing deep insight into their feelings and behavior, emotions and thoughts that we all sometimes experience, the pace was sometimes slower than watching water boil. Sometimes it felt as if some characters moved on while others stood still and seemed not to age. For most of the book I was confused as to when it took place and how many years had actually passed.

As history began to repeat itself and the past left its mark on the future, the reader learns that some dreams were fulfilled by succeeding generations and others, while not nightmares, were the sad results of mistaken choices. Were the sins of the father visited upon the sons?

The reader will wonder if the choice of a biological mother to abandon her children is worse than the choice of a stepmother who abandons her stepchildren, even when one seems to be motivated by a purity of soul and need to do good and the other seems to be motivated by greed and jealousy alone. What is the father’s role in all of this? Does he ignore his own responsibilities?

The house may act as the foil, but the family dynamics are what develops the story.

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review 2019-11-05 12:43
A beautiful family saga full of magic and compelling writing
The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I’ve heard of Ann Patchett but hadn’t read any of her novels until now, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get started. And I really liked the book cover and was intrigued by the title as well. Having read this novel, I’m sure it won’t be the last of the author’s books I read.

Although most reviews are positive, some readers who are familiar with her previous novels felt disappointed, while others loved it as much, if not more, as her previous work. As I said, I have nothing to compare it with, but I enjoyed it. I loved the characters (most of all), I loved the setting, and the writing, that can be lyrical, touching, and humorous in turns.

This is the story of a family, or, to be precise, of two siblings and the people they meet along the way. Maeve and Danny become a family-unit through unfortunate (and at times bizarre) circumstances. Their mother leaves when Danny, the younger of the two, is only three years old, and Maeve becomes his sister/mother/life coach/career advisor and many more things. Their father, Cyril, a real estate magnate, is consumed by his business and never explains much, either about his background, their mother, or the house, the Dutch House of the title. When he marries Andrea, who has two daughters of her own, things change, and when he dies, things take an even more dramatic turn.

The story, such as it is, is narrated in the first person by Danny, who claims to have intended to tell the story of his sister (a rather extraordinary individual I’d love to meet in real life), but he realised that this could not be done in isolation from his own and from that of many others who had also played parts in the events they might not have been fully aware of at the time. Although there is an overall chronological order to the novel, Danny’s memory sometimes circles back and forth to moments or events that are related or linked, at least in his mind, to what he is thinking or talking about at the time. He explores the memories around the Dutch House (a seemingly mysterious place although things don’t go in the direction readers might expect), and how the different people seem to have contrasting versions of what went on and totally different feelings about it as well. Was their mother a saint, or a heartless woman who abandoned her children in her eagerness to help unknown others? Was Andrea a greedy woman (the wicked stepmother of fairy tales) who married their father for his money and then threw them out? Or did she truly love him and resented them for their connection to him? Was Maeve domineering and manipulative or selfless and generous? Why didn’t Danny’s wife, Celeste, and his sister get on? What power did the Dutch House have over its inhabitants?

As I have already mentioned, I loved the characters. Although we don’t get to know all of them completely (this is the story Danny is telling, and at times he can be remarkably lacking in insight and even curiosity), that is part of the charm of the story. This would make a great novel for book clubs, as there is much to discuss, and I am sure different readers will have totally different opinions on the characters and their possible motives and/or justifications. Interpretations are left open, and although there is an end (yes, a happy ending of sorts), the ending does not necessarily provide an explanation for everything that happens, at least not a definitive one. As is the case in real life, people are unknowable, and even those we think we know best can surprise us at times.

I also loved the house. The similarities to a fairy tale are mentioned in the description and in many of the reviews, and perhaps because we first see the house from the perspective of a little boy, there is something magical about it. There are secret drawers, paintings of previous owners, gold leaf decorations, hidden storage places, and the house seems to hold an ongoing influence over those who’ve ever lived or worked there. I would love to visit it, and the combination of grand mansion and some of the characteristics of a gothic castle work well and give it a strong personality, although it might not live up to everybody’s expectations.

I have read some of the negative comments, and I do understand them and don’t necessarily disagree with the points they make, although I feel they don’t detract from the novel. Some people note that there is no plot or story behind it and complain that it is slow. This is a family saga, and as such there is no conventional plot or a great revelation (there are quite a few secrets and misunderstandings that get cleared out, but that is not the same) at the end. Because this is a book about memory, family life, growing older, and forgiveness, it is not a straightforward narration or a page-turner where the main point is to keep the action moving. Life happens at its own pace; there are funny moments, sad moments, enlightening moments, inspiring ones, and disappointments as well. The writing is compelling, but people who love stories full of action and a quick pace should not attempt this novel, unless they are willing to try something different. Some readers also complain that some of the storylines are unrealistic… Well, this is a novel, and I’ve read some that required a much higher degree of suspension of disbelief than this one, but I am sure realism is not what the author was after.

I loved this novel and would recommend it to readers who appreciate a focus on character, beautiful writing, and some touches of magic and are fond of the adult fairy-tale. As usual, I recommend readers who aren’t sure if they’d enjoy it or not, to try a book sample and see how they feel. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s stories in the future. I have the feeling that they won’t disappoint.

 

 

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