Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

If you needed any convincing to read this book, take this next passage as your sign:

(it’s a bit long but so worth the read)

“Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her. Of course Sandy and Jocelyn mothered us. They made sure we were washed and fed and that our lunches were packed and our scouting dues paid. They loved us, I know they did, but they went home at the end of the day. There was no crawling into bed with Sandy or Jocelyn when I had a bad dream in the middle of the night, and it never once occurred to me to knock on my father’s door. I went to Maeve. She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.”

This rings so true.

The feelings evoked in me while reading The Dutch House were reminiscent of my reading experience with books like The Great Alone, Little Fires Everywhere, and A Spool of Blue Thread (they even have the similar “Oh, Danny”). That is to say, what a journey would await. Maeve was someone to behold.

“Five whole days with you at home,” she said, blowing smoke out the open window. “The best five days of the year.”

On another note, we’re diving right into spoilers from here, it showcases the author’s talents that within one page I can hate a character and yet know nothing substantial about them. Ahem, Andrea. You can just tell, like with real people, who spells trouble. Translating that feeling on paper? That’s a magical writer right there.

the office

But back to reasons why I love Maeve:

“Maeve was pretty enough and popular enough that she would never have had to stay home on Saturday nights, but for the most part she did, and for the first time I realized it was because of me. She would never have left me alone in the house.”

Big sisters. That’s it.

“and the way the last bit of light fell over her, she looked like a painting.”

She looked like a … painting!! She has long black hair! The painting of the girl on the cover is MAEVE. I knew it held something more about it.
the dutch house bookspoils
I couldn’t stop staring at the cover when I first got my hands on the book. And so I kept feeling drawn like a magnet to it until I finally caved in and picked the book up. Like, it wouldn’t leave my head until I had it in my hands. This book was calling to me. Or rather, Maeve was calling to me. I was intrigued.

“Now that she wasn’t around to help me with my homework, I wondered for the first time who had ever helped her when she was young.”

I never realized just how much my soul needed to read a book about appreciating older sisters as stand-in mothers until I stumbled upon The Dutch House. This is healing. It’s the little things no one notices when it comes to taking care of younger siblings, like helping them out with their homework, or those simple moments that arise to remind them of how good they are so those values are instilled from a young age.

“You only think you want to get rid of your sister,” Jocelyn said, clapping her hand on my shoulder in a firm manner so as not to embarrass me. “Then when she’s gone it turns out you miss her.”

I wonder if this feeling has a name. It evokes the most acute emotion.

Not only does this book represent the part of an older sister fully committed to her younger sibling, it’s the loss of a childhood home that cannot go by unnoticed. It reverberates throughout your life. The hurt these next passages encompass cannot be overstated:

“The idiocy of what we took and what we left cannot be overstated. We packed up clothes and shoes I would outgrow in six months, and left behind the blanket at the foot of my bed my mother had pieced together out of her dresses.”

“and there were some other things—yearbooks, a couple boxes of novels she’d already read, some dolls she was saving for the daughter she was sure she would have one day, all in the attic under the eaves and behind the tiny door in the back of the third-floor bedroom closet. Did Andrea even know about that space? Maeve had shown it to the girls the night of the house tour, but would they remember or ever think to look in there again? Or would those boxes just belong to the house now, sealed into the wall like a time capsule from her youth?”

You’ll forever think about the things you didn’t take.

“I always imagined the house would die without us. I don’t know, I thought it would crumple up. Do houses ever die of grief?”

The longwinded realization that at the end of the day a house is just that, a house, came to me after years and years. The house stays the same for the most part. You’re the one who changes through the years.

What a powerful story.

Like I said earlier, The Dutch House reminds me distinctly of The Great Alone. It’s that sense of togetherness and loyalty you feel as the reader to these book characters. Maeve was the star of this book for me. The quiet star that shines the brightest but is set aside too often. She never got quite what she deserved. She worked the hardest of them all and was never fully redeemed, especially with a character like Celeste to remind her of that. And who is Celeste to say those things? Her name says all you need to know about her character.

Celeste wasn’t listening. Where Maeve was concerned she didn’t listen. “At what point do you say to her, Okay, it was an awful childhood, it’s a terrible thing to be rich and then not be rich, but now everybody has to grow up?”

People like her are why people like Andrea exist.

Celeste never fully understands the sacrifice Maeve had to make to ensure Danny’s well being. Celeste never thinks about why Maeve took on that job she thinks is beneath her (to stay closer to Danny) or why she lives where she does (to stay closer to Danny). Maeve served everyone but herself, and it upsets me to think someone so privileged – so entitled to their privilege they aren’t even aware of it – has the audacity to judge Maeve. It reminded me of this brilliant line in the poem, To this day:

When a kid who could still go home to mom and dad
Had the audacity to tell him “get over it”

Though my hatred wasn’t Andrea-level, it felt pretty close. Why? This passage hits it right on:

“Those are my two choices? I love her or I hate her?”
“Well,” my sister said, “you’re telling me you didn’t hate her, so I just want to know what the parameters are. I think it’s a ridiculous conversation to be having in the first place, if you want my opinion. Say there’s a kid who lives next door, a kid you have no particular friendship with but no problems with either. Then one day he walks into your house and kills your sister with a baseball bat.”
“Maeve, for the love of God.”
She held up her hand. “Hear me out. Does that present fact obliterate the past? Maybe not if you loved the kid. Maybe if you loved the kid you’d dig in and try to find out what had happened, see things from his perspective, wonder what his parents had done to him, wonder if there wasn’t some chemical imbalance. You might even consider that your sister could have played a role in the outcome—did she torment this boy? Was she cruel to him? But you’d only wonder about that if you loved him. If you only liked the kid, if he was never anything more to you than an okay neighbor, I don’t see the point in scratching around for good memories. He’s gone to prison. You’re never going to see the son-of-a-bitch again.”

I love her.

I was so attached to Maeve that seeing her receive the bare minimum was beyond painful to read. Give her a break! Not only did Maeve have to deal with someone like Andrea in her youth, on top of taking care of her younger sibling, she now receives someone like Celeste in her adulthood to battle with. Needless to say she did not receive the ending I thought she deserved. This book is depressing, too much like reality. I’m already hurt in real life. Give me at least some semblance of a happy ending for characters that deserve it the most in books. This, too, reminds me of my experience with The Great Alone.

Join me and read the opening chapter for yourself. You’ll be hooked.

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