January 22

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I always take care of my books.  They’re my treasures after all so you won’t see them dog-eared or rough around the edges.  Sadly, this book looks like it’s been through the right ringer because well, it has.  I haven’t left home without it.  Anytime I thought I’d have a spare mo to read in any day over the past week, I threw it in my bag as I scarpered out the door.  Coincidentally she’s looking rather sorry for herself but that’s how enamoured I was with it and it’s how much I adore Ann Patchett.

The Dutch House is another wonder by her. I love how she so carefully and so intricately threads a story – how everyday and identifiable her characters are and how she can break your heart with just one little line.

In a recent podcast (it is called Clear and Vivid and I strongly ! recommend it, Readheads) Ann talks with Alan Alda on the importance of empathy in storytelling and she is, above all else I think, fabulous at empathy.  Even characters who start out as the villains are by the end of the story cosily nestled in your heart. This is her super power. She puts you in someone else’s skin – whether you want to be there or not.

The Dutch House is a story about family and all its good, bad and ugly….when you have one, when you lose one, when you try to create your own and when you cannot stop searching for a lost one.

Danny and Maeve are siblings who arrive as children at the Dutch House – a grand, imposing home in Pennsylvania.  Their father buys it for their mother but shortly after she leaves for India, unable to bear the weight of it all (villan #1).  Their mother’s abandonment defines Danny and Maeve as does the coolness of their distant father (villan #2).  But then Andrea arrives – along with her two small girls Norma and Bright – and a new family is created and just as quickly destroyed.

After their father’s sudden death, Danny and Maeve are banished from the Dutch House by Andrea (villan #3) and we follow them over the decades as they find their own lives but they cannot escape the enduring lure of the Dutch House.   It is home to all their pain and they find themselves regularly sitting outside it, inside their car, searching for answers through the  massive floor-to-ceiling glassed walls.

When Meave suffers a heart attack in her early 50s all the lost, broken tendrils of her and Danny’s childhood are suddenly yanked back  and knotted around them.  This is where the story gets really interesting.

And then – when all the people are shown to be just people and love shows itself to be unpredictable, flinty but ultimately unbreakable,  the story ends and you can, at last, close the book, kiss it and breath again.

And that is my 2 cents worth.

PS: if you have a copy of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, flick to the part where she meets Ann Patchett. It is a story of a meeting and a peck hello and the bouncing of an idea between two souls.  Magic.