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The Heart and the Home: the meaning of place in Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

Tasmanian coastline

This last week has been filled with a lot of joy and a lot of sadness. I spent the beginning of the week exploring Tasmania which was so breathtaking. And then the end of the week was spent mourning loss after loss. That is just how life goes sometimes. Rather than keep to my usual Wednesday upload schedule, I wanted to give myself a bit of time to breath in between all the highs and lows.

Today’s review we are talking about Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House.

Book cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House with hashtags, #whatareyoureading, #thedutchhouse, and #annpatchett

This is the first book I have ever read by Ann Patchett, despite knowing that there is a bit of a cult-reading following of her work. The themes in Patchett’s novel have resonated with me this week as I think about loss, the meaning we keep in certain places and people, and how these things can mean different things to different people.

It is not a literary stretch to think of the dutch house in Patchett’s novel as one of the main protagonists, albeit a silent one. The house is grand and speaks to a time were opulence and old world money reigned. The house has large glass panels that trick the onlooker to believe that the house is open, transparent, and clear. Yet the house with all of its different floors and staircases is much more complicated when you look again. The Dutch house reminds me of a palimpsest—where stories of different families and lives are written and rewritten in the house leaving the house faintly altered, yet one can only see this upon closer inspection.

For Danny and Maeve, who grew up in the Dutch house and were then later exiled from it by their stepmother, the house means different things. Maeve and Danny have a ritual of visiting the house, which boarders on masochism. They visit the house and look through the large expansive glass panels, but are never allowed in. Their childhood is dislocated, and it seems like they return to the house in the hopes of someone catching a glimpse of their past selves.

The complicated web of relationships that come from the Dutch house speaks to the complexities of family and family traumas. Elna, Maeve and Danny’s mother, abandons her children because she found the house too oppressive. When she is finally reunited with her children, Danny and Maeve take this very differently. Maeve welcomes and forgives her mother with an ease that Danny is never quite capable of doing. And forgiveness and redemption take on different forms through the relationships in the Conroy family and the Dutch house.

Patchett’s novel is both intriguing and easy to read. She draws on a long history of literature that explores our relationships with space and place. By doing so, she reaffirms that we are still unsure of how to process our connections to home.

If you have read Patchett’s novel, I would love to know what you thought of it. Also, please let me know what Patchett novel I should read next. As always, share the reading love.