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.

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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.
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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.

Similar books to check out:

 

 

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

It feels so good to have enjoyed a novel so fully that I read it in a day and a half. What had me so keen on the premise of Tell the Machine Goodnight is a) the fact that the synopsis “playfully illuminates our national obsession with positive psychology, our reliance on quick fixes and technology” and b) Gabrielle Zevin, one of my favorite authors who excels with her subtle little quips on our daily lives, blurbed it.

Pearl’s job is to make people happy. Every day, she provides customers with personalized recommendations for greater contentment. She’s good at her job, her office manager tells her, successful. But how does one measure an emotion?

Meanwhile, there’s Pearl’s teenage son, Rhett. A sensitive kid who has forged an unconventional path through adolescence, Rhett seems to find greater satisfaction in being unhappy. The very rejection of joy is his own kind of “pursuit of happiness.” As his mother, Pearl wants nothing more than to help Rhett–but is it for his sake or for hers? Certainly it would make Pearl happier. Regardless, her son is one person whose emotional life does not fall under the parameters of her job–not as happiness technician, and not as mother, either.

Told from an alternating cast of endearing characters from within Pearl and Rhett’s world, Tell the Machine Goodnight delivers a smartly moving and entertaining story about relationships and the ways that they can most surprise and define us. Along the way, Katie Williams playfully illuminates our national obsession with positive psychology, our reliance on quick fixes and technology. What happens when these obsessions begin to overlap? With warmth, humor, and a clever touch, Williams taps into our collective unease about the modern world and allows us see it a little more clearly.

Thankfully for my impatient temper, the introducing story starts off compelling enough, in particular, hits the spot for me upon introducing Pearl’s sixteen-year-old son, Rhett, who’s recovering from an eating disorder. His unknowable, remote nature makes for a natural pull in getting to know more about him. Incidentally, he’s also all the things that make me feel fond of a character: distant, moody, hates school, rarely leaves his home, is close to his mother (or getting to it).

Tell the Machine Goodnight 4To counter his anguished withdrawal, Pearl’s powerless state seeps in, when all she craves is to bring her child back from hovering on the brink, so she channels in her overprotective, overbearing, OVEReverything nature, similar to Joyce Byers in Stranger Things.

The following stories move deftly between alternating characters, such as Pearl’s ex-husband, Elliot, Pearl’s shifty coworker, Carter, Pearl’s high-end secret client for Apricity, who gets name-dropped throughout the book so that when we finally meet her it feels like all else has led up to this exact moment. At the heart of it all, though, stands Pearl with her fierce protectiveness (of herself, of her child, of her machine) at her beck and call.

Tell the Machine Goodnight gets so many things right by going outside the box not only on the platitudes of motherhood but through the whip-smart writing and a tremendous cast that lead to having numerous moments and turns of phrase to remind me of how good this book can be. Leading examples include:

  • #1

Tell the Machine Goodnight 15“unique store-bought personality” is one of the more memorable lines I’ve read this year.

  • #2Tell the Machine Goodnight 2

Typically, we’d fill in the brackets on our own, but Katie Williams is here to reminds us not to succumb to gender stereotypes.

  • Another moment where I felt the author truly shine was with Zihao’s introduction (Rhett’s college roommate, an international student from China). It takes a special type of writer to succeed at showcasing a character’s personality through text messages (and with emoji, no less).Tell the Machine Goodnight 1-- bookspoils
  • But he truly caught my attention when he got randomly along with Rhett’s mom.Tell the Machine Goodnight 2-- bookspoils The subtle ingenuity disposed between Rhett and Zi had me smiling like a fool.
  • And I’ll leave my review with one last riveting insight on something that I’m running over and over in my mind:

Tell the Machine Goodnight 5

I love how, throughout my reading experience, this novel remains utterly self-aware and keeps up with the whip-sharp and INNOVATIVE remarks on our deepest desires. And I know I said the above was the last passage I wanted to share, but I have one more subtle quip for the road: “Being home from college for the summer is like sleeping over at a friend’s house you’ve only ever visited in the afternoon. The furniture is familiar, but the light has gone funny on you.” 

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: June 19th, 2018

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Review: Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

“For you, everything’s a story, eh? It’s just too bad that for me, it’s real life”

This slow-revealing, insightful Israeli novel was one that took me by surprise.

Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this bestselling and warmly acclaimed Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents, whose turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions reveal a society in the midst of an identity crisis.

The first thing that piqued my interest upon starting my reading of Three Floors Up was the author’s brilliant ability to make his characters shine in quiet moments. As well as having this disquieting nature at the very base of the introducing story that makes the narrator’s actions brim with tension, even when there’s nothing crucial happening on the surface.

“You can’t always pinpoint such things. Sometimes it’s just a feeling. The very slightest sense of menace in the air.”

Following interweaving threads between the three narratives, Three Floors Up is, at its core, about life and all its accompanying beauty, complexity, ease, and flaws.

I found the second floor is where I feel this book really flourishes, where Hani, known as “the widow,” is writing a letter of confession of sorts to her longtime friend, Netta. This story reverberated in its quiet resonance most strongly when her brother-in-law (Eviatar) shows up at her doorstep out of the blue.

Though, to give credit where credit is due, Hani starts of the story quite remarkably on her own terms. I still remember the utter thrill I felt at reading the passage below, of having Hani reminiscence to the one psychologist she clicked with years and years ago, whom she now decides to call, only to reach the son.

“I remained standing there with the phone in my hand even after we hung up, listening to the beeps that came after the call was disconnected. What a nerve she had, I thought, to die on me like that.”

I also appreciated the author’s efforts of never leaving a character without expanding on their thoughts or breathing some life into them. Speaking of which: Eviatar. He’s one of the more morally gray characters I’ve read about, which, when I really think of it, are essentially all of the characters in this book. But the author handled their flaws expertly, as this next passage best captures: “But I’m not going to talk about Eviatar yet. If I talk about Eviatar now, you’ll judge me harshly and I want you to understand the background first and then judge me (harshly, what else?).”

It’s all in the underlying sentences that aren’t said but are felt.

From telling captivating bedtime stories to handling the kids naturally in the mornings before school, it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in Eviatar’s charisma. Which is best cemented in this single paragraph:

“Before I opened the door to leave the house, he bent down to Lyri and said, “Remember what we agreed!” (They already have agreements?)
Lyri nodded. Hesitantly.
“If Mica says she doesn’t want to play with you at recess,” Eviatar persisted, “what will you tell her?”
“That’s your loss.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I’m a terrific girl and anyone who plays with me can only profit from it.”
“And what does ‘profit from it’ mean?”
“That she’ll have fun.”
“Good. And you”—he turned to Nimrod—“give me a high five. Hard. Harder. The hardest. Now a hug. Tight. Tighter. The tightest.”

It was this, finally, that made the tears well up in my eyes. It’s also at this point that I was thinking, ‘This is a true man,’ but then I also remembered that he’s at the house because he’s being hunted down by loan sharks and needs to hide… So this is where it gets tricky in regards to his character because we feel all these conflicting emotions where we see him acting so kindly with the family, but then his business is unquestionably shady. Like, how do these two versions of Eviatar align?

So, without a doubt, Eshkol Nevo raised lots of important questions by introducing these characters. Also, if we’re already on the topic, I have to mention that the writing in here is sublime and unlike anything I’ve read before. I felt it in particular when I read this:

“Why are you helping me, Hani?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Because you’re desperate.”
Or maybe I said, “Because I’m the only one who will.”
Or maybe I said, “Because Assaf wouldn’t want me to help you.”
Or maybe I didn’t say anything.”

“(I’m not trying to be smart, Netta. I’m really not sure what I said. Or what I just wanted to say. What happened, or what I wanted to happen. Honestly.)”

The breaking of the fourth wall, combined with perceptiveness, subtle humor, and a sense of timing all made for a transcendent reading experience. Full of slow-revealing storylines that are so worth the wait and fleshing out the characters through tiny detailed moments in time are what really make the story for me. Plus, the biggest bonus for me: capturing the essence of Israeliness, which I always turn for in books. Bottom line: I highly recommend this read.

Many, many thanks to the Jewish Book Council’s Israel Bookshelf for providing me with a physical copy of Three Floors Up.

israel-bookshelf-headerSource

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