From the outside, the Conroy family looked like the picture of the American dream. Cyril Conroy, having taken advantage of the post-war economic boom, invests in real-estate and quickly takes his family from living in a precarious military base, to a life of luxury in an extravagant mansion. Yes, you guessed it right: the Dutch House. Cut to some years later and his children’s mother is long gone and Andrea, his second wife, is a widow. The children are kicked out of the house and have no inheritance. Danny is 15 when this happens, and he takes us through the next four or five decades of him and his older sister Maeve wresting with the past, which they periodically re-live by parking outside the house, watching it like they know Andrea must have done before intruding into their lives.
I didn’t expect such a sad-sounding story – children abandoned by their mother only to be expelled from their home by their stepmother years later when their father dies and never getting over it – to be told with such humour. This is a very funny novel. The story is afforded the solemnity it deserves and there is plenty of suffering to go around, but mostly this is experienced in silence and we are spared having to hear all about it, and instead witness the siblings laughing at their own misery and making failed attempts at catharsis by recounting the past, trashing those who have wronged them and plotting innocuous acts of revenge.
Their mother Elna, we come to find out, was a religious do-gooder who decided to leave her family to head for Calcutta after she “read an article in a magazine about Mother Teresa.” Perhaps even more ridiculous is her excuse that, in her typically Catholic fetishising of public and self-inflicted suffering, being embarrassed to live in the grandeur of the Dutch House was literally unbearable. Her selfishness is interpreted differently by each character, and I suspect the same will hold true for readers. Some believe that her charity work made her an actual saint. For me, Danny’s diagnosis is right on the money: “Abandoning your children to go help the poor in India means you’re a narcissist who wants the adoration of strangers.” At a moment of desperation Maeve is willing to buy into the saint narrative but eventually realises that “all this bullshit about service and forgiveness and peace” usually cracks in the face of the complications of wounded relationships that are left to fester.
Cyril, the father, comes off just as badly. He is entirely uninterested in his children and is absent, but his lack of sensitivity and compassion is on another level where their mother is concerned. To end a conversation Danny starts about her (the first one in about a decade), daddy dearest says, “Everybody’s got a burden in life and this is yours.” Thanks, dad. When a teenage Maeve declares her plans to go to India to find her mother he is unconcerned: “There are almost 450 million people in India now. Good luck with that.” His biggest sin, however, is not securing his children’s future – that he would transfer his entire fortune to the stepmother, a virtual stranger to them, is on a level of neglect on par with Elna’s ‘saintliness’. (Believe it or not, Ann Patchett actually makes this plausible, and infuriating. She’s that good.)
Without Danny and Maeve’s self-aware and unapologetic (though still self-conscious) resentments and, at times, pettiness, this might have turned into a melodrama. Thankfully, we get gems like their younger stepsisters being mercilessly ridiculed for their crying (“Bright dropped her head onto her sister’s chest and Norma buried her face in her hands like they’d just gotten news of the Apocalypse”) and their father’s cigarette being lit over an ongoing meal described as “an act of aggressive incivility [Danny] had never before witnessed.” These are just two small quips but the siblings get pretty savage when it comes to their stepmother, and I’m here for it.
“Man hands on misery to man.” The truth is that everybody in the Conroy family is a bit of a dick; the difference is that the parents and Andrea really mess up their children. Maeve works through her trauma by fantasising about Andrea’s misery, wasting her American-dream-potential, while Danny works through his by becoming a better but still flawed version of his father and marrying the mother he wished he’d had, or that he did in fact have, in Maeve and the women who worked at the house while he was growing up.
We get a couple of glorious hundred pages of going through all this mess and see how it shapes the siblings’ lives over the decades. Then the novel nears its end with another phenomenal betrayal that completes one of those generational cycles that haunts families everywhere. The very final wrap-up is a little silly and sentimental, but this only lasts a merciful fifteen or so pages.
The question at the heart of this story is what is to be done about emotional wounds and resentment – do we feed and tend to them like a fire, or pretend to ourselves to forgive and forget, knowing that certain things can’t really be forgotten? Or do we find a middle ground and move on enough to stop stoking the fire until there are only a faint ember or two left, there as a reminder to stay alert because the next betrayal could be just around the corner? Ann Patchett explores all this while making you laugh, with one sentence more perfect and elegant than the next.
It’s no wonder that this was a finalist for the Pulitzer and longlisted for ( / robbed of) the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. The writing is economical, direct and cynical, but Patchett still manages to create memorable imagery and genuinely profound meditations on life. She lets the reader decode the story and characters, and doesn’t tell you what to think. The way she takes us through fifty years of life, going back and forth through time so seamlessly, and making it look easy, is a wonder to behold.