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’s 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 she 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 privilege – 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:

 

Girlhood and Coming-of-Age Review: The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

I was on the search for a lightweight book to bring with me for a day full of travel, when the simple beauty of this cover, filled in tan, freckled skin, enthralled this fellow tan, freckled gal to pick it from the tucked away library shelf (the second time around). Funnily enough, I made a trek back to the library later that same day to grab the book because it wouldn’t escape my mind from that morning sighting when I had failed to pick it up.

Rainbow Rowell recommended Rufi Thorpe’s Dear Fang, With Love years ago, which meant for me that this author would nail down life specificities the way I enjoy in Rowell’s books. The Girls from Corona del Mar did not disappoint within the first page, reading about a loving family’s presence in Lorrie Ann’s life.The Girls from Corona del Mar bookspoils

And it took me a single sitting, reading swiftly through ten pages, to realize this was something to hold on to. I particularly enjoyed how the first couple of pages started with a tantalizing proclamation, “You’re going to have to break one of my toes,” then veered off to familiarize these characters, and ended the paragraph the same way it started so that we’re included in their motives; a full circle.

Set in the mid-90s, The Girls from Corona del Mar follows two best friends, Mia and Lorrie Ann, through spot-on observations on life, growing together and apart, and always having that nature pull to return to each other. This read like an extremely attentive and introspective novel, full of vivid stories on Mia’s lifelong friendship with Lorrie Ann. My mind was bursting with all that I wanted to note down with each page I read. You know it’s a good book when you close your eyes at the end of the day and continue completing the story in your head.

Normally, friendships between girls are stowed away in boxes of postcards and ticket stubs, but whatever was between me and Lorrie Ann was not so easy to set aside.

I was surprised to find a unique storytelling mode where, instead of having two narrators who each tell their own tale, we follow Mia’s perspective of Lorrie Ann’s toils through the details Lor gives her best friend. You can peek this in the passage below:

“I love you,” Lorrie Ann lied. (Was it a lie? I never knew, exactly. I couldn’t understand her love for Jim and so I made my peace with Lor’s decisions by assuming her feelings for him were either feigned or a delusion, but perhaps they were not. Perhaps she loved him with the same animal part of herself that couldn’t let that baby go.)

I really liked how the author gained control with this little insert because Mia went a little off-task into Lor’s (the name Lorrie Ann is a pain to type) world, and the usage of first-person brought it back to the narrator.

I’ll be honest by saying right off the bat I was as wrapped around Lorrie Ann’s finger as much as Mia. Something about the utter kindness and goodness of her always shone so brightly on the page. It’s best told in this incident that captures Lor’s character through the author’s storytelling:

Once, when we were about ten, Lorrie Ann had been given too much change at the Chevron snack shop: she had paid with a ten, but the man must have thought she gave him a twenty. Lorrie Ann didn’t even notice until we were five blocks away, and then insisted we walk all the way back so that she could give him that unearned ten-dollar bill, which as I recall was soft and wrinkled like wilted lettuce. I am sure Lorrie Ann would never remember that day, such an insignificant anecdote, but in my mind it became a central organizing allegory about the differences between us.
Everything I had in life was half stolen, a secret, wilt-y ten-dollar bill that Lorrie Ann would have been too good to keep, but which I could not force myself to give away.

What makes so much of these eyeful remarks is how grounded in reality they are.

I was initially won over by Lorrie Ann with this truthful statement when faced clearly, at only eighteen, with an impossible choice: “But don’t you learn to love someone?” Lorrie Ann asked.

This right here is what too many novels fail to realize when they proclaim that love is all or nothing. Love isn’t some overbearing emotion that takes control of your sane thought process, love is something that you need to discover how to do with morality. “You don’t fall in love. You grow in love.” Love is recognizing the grandiosity of the person standing before you; love is including that person within your own being.

Her thought process of said impossible choice is demonstrated touchingly. She had this terrible death happen within her family, which she concludes as her fault for not being good enough or observant enough of the signs in her life, so she doesn’t want to set off something now that’ll make bad things appear back in her life. She chooses what she deems the right thing. What follows changes the trajectory of her life and Mia’s along with her.

And yet it was not me but Lorrie Ann whom the vultures of bad luck kept on visiting, darkening the yard of her house, tapping on the panes of her windows with their musty, blood-crusted beaks.“Wake up, little girl!” they cried.“We’ve got something else for you!

I felt suspended the entire time I read through this reflective and tumultuous story. So much of this novel is built on the many tragedies that befall Lor despite her best. And I kept wallowing over just how many they are… I mean, I came to relish whenever Lor walked back into Mia’s life, though knowing it’s only when something unfortunate happens makes it a bittersweet pill to swallow.

At a certain point, when the only times these two communicate is when something bad occurs to Lorrie Ann, it became an exhausting process of “Oh, what now?” It read like a condensed version of A Little Life, which I liked for the subtle quips on life but disliked immensely for throwing tragedy after tragedy my way. It takes away from the realness of life when we only meet these two characters when tragedy strikes. I wanted to spend more time in the in-between moments that make up a lifetime. When everything’s shit, however, it makes you appreciate little gestures of kindness, simple as a sweet nurse over the phone reassuring Lorrie Ann.

On a random note, I enjoyed how the title chapters are indicant of what’s ahead. It’s a little touch that shows how much a book means to an author.

And I’m still so in awe at how this book kept me enthralled page by page with its eyeful observations. This is an author that lets no moment slip by; you have to be really sensitive of your reality to succeed in writing down what you see in real life. And I, for one, am a complete sucker when it comes to introspective novels that reveal a deeper layer that lies within us.

The Girls from Corona del Mar nails down the complexity of maintaining a long-distance friendship. I admired, in particular, what was said about feeling like a character in a book, like, you don’t exist unless I pick you up.

“That came out awful, but what I mean is that when you are a half a world away, it seems more like something happening in a novel, you know, and we’ve lived apart for so many years now that you are kind of like that for me, except when I see you, then you are suddenly terribly real, and that made Jim’s death real and now I feel like I can’t catch my breath because everything is too real for words.”
Lorrie Ann looked at me critically for a moment, as though I were a gem she were assessing through one of those tiny eyepieces. Then she said, “I know exactly what you mean. For most of the year you are just a character in a book I’m reading. And then when you do show up, I think:  Oh, God, it’s her! It’s her. The girl I knew when I was a kid. My friend.”

This is such a sweet moment too real for words… And then this moment on how talking over the phone never fully captures the true experience in a single phrase: “I’m not sure,” Lorrie Ann said, and I wished I could read her face.”

They hold this interesting dynamic wherein Mia feels forever endowed by Lorrie Anne’s virtue. Her “opposite twin.”

I did not pursue my relationship with either for personal reasons, but because I sincerely believed they were the two best specimens of humanity I had yet to run across on the planet.

But when this book turns bad, it goes down all the way. It hit a point of no return after the 150-page mark, and I was left dumbfounded. I felt truly betrayed by the inorganic change in character happening halfway through. I had spent so much time with this book, singing its praises, only to have this abrupt tomfoolery wherein the most moral character had everything immoral thrown her way. I’m still in a state of shock. It came to the point where I had to point the book cover face down on my nightstand, till its fast return to the library the following day, because  I couldn’t bear to look at it without some semblance of anger flaring up inside me. It felt like two completely different stories were being told: One of genuine storytelling, using many sharp observations about family life, and telling a truthful tale of girlhood. And the other is focused on tearing down what we build up for the past 100 pages. Like, when Mia starts being the moral compass for Lorrie Ann that’s when you know something fishy is going down in the storytelling.

 

 

This unnatural change of pace made me feel beyond exasperated. It’s all that I had been warned about on immorality was shown with a turn of a page. W H Y ??? I’ll just say one thing: Those questioning the system of justice while claiming that ridding a child of its life because of a disability are exactly those that the system exists for. I mean:

“Zach’s suffering is not more than a child’s in the Congo just because we are genetically related.”

How is one supposed to react calmly to reading such utter BS? She’s talking so coldly about her own son, and I’m wondering how this is the same person from the start of this book. I cannot stand when good characters are destroyed this way. This felt like an amateurish and insensitive dissection on a character’s life.

I just don’t have the patience anymore to deal with such crude remarks being made for n, such as comparing genocides and reducing both in the process of doing so.

Cue my search for a new favorite book to calm my storming rage.

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The Hype is Right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Book Spoilery Review)

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house.”

 

Flipping through five pages of praise to get to the actual storyline of Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a telling sign. Plus: the book is set in the month of November when it starts, which is the current month, and reading something that’s set in the same period of time is only a bonus that works in my favor, same as I mentioned back in my review for The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (set in June, read in June).

When they say this book is made up of emails and letters, they’re not kidding. The whole first half of this book uses anything and everything, except standard chapters, to tell the story of the Branch family (consisting of 15-year-old Bee and her parents Bernadette Fox and Elgie) and the people in their orbit. We have transcripts taken from FBI documents, emails, articles, handwritten notes, an extravagant and detailed emergency room bill, and all the gossip-filled correspondences from Galer Street. In short: It’s a hoot to read through.

The longer overview:

  • I’ve been in the mood for a book that resembles Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere ever since I completed it about a year ago, so the premise of Where’d You Go, Bernadette exploring the rich white neighborhood of Galer Street, but also introducing complex components that have us in this love-to-hate relationship with certain characters (*ahem* Aubrey) had me intrigued.
  • I have to grant it to Bernadette, though, for first catching my attention with this spiel on the overpowering energy it requires to simply be with people:

“The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return. I’m getting a panic attack just thinking about it. A little social anxiety never hurt anyone, am I right?”

  • All the praise was raving about how hilarious this book was, so I kept an eye out for some uproarious laughter to consume me only to realize that Where’d You Go, Bernadette doesn’t feature that in-your-face outrageous humor but rather the everyday kind where you’re talking and just are on the same wavelength of humor when talking and sharing. It’s so nice to see it play out on the page.

“See, I never thought through the actual implication of you applying to boarding schools. I.e., that you’d be leaving us. But really, it’s fine with me if you run off. I’ll still see you every day.”
I glowered at her.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she said. “I’m going to move to Wallingford and rent a house off campus. I already got a job working in the Choate dining hall.”
“Don’t even joke,” I said.”

This right here made a smile creep up on my face because it’s Bernadette’s only upper hand as a mother to a teen. It’s the good-humored kind of family jokes where you just know each other well enough to know what ticks them off and what doesn’t.

The kind of humor that makes you feel good, not at the cost of someone, unless, of course, we’re talking about… Dun Dun Duuuuun:

  • Audrey Griffin aka “call-the-manager” type of person:

Honesty, the skill it takes to somehow turn the events around so that everyone but her is at blame is astonishing. You do not want to be in her favor. Or ever owe her anything ever. A great example of this are her letters to the director of Gaylor Street School, Gwen Goodyear:

“Speaking of Warren, he’s looking into the legality of letting a student who’s a known drug abuser finish out the semester. Isn’t that a threat to the other students? I’m asking out of curiosity.
If you’re so hell-bent on placing blame, I suggest you look in the mirror.”

Bam. Her letters to fallible Gwen Goodyear were always a ruckus. She emits that passive-aggressiveness that’s more like aggressive-aggressiveness, and it’s something else to experience from the sidelines.

Also, her accomplice Soo-Lin who’s a known homewrecker (TIME-OUT REALITY CHECK: honestly, I’m perplexed as to what good she thought would come out of chasing after a married man????) (the married man in question is a cheat, as well, for trying to neatly pack up his wife, instead of questioning what’s going on and actually communicate his thoughts to her.) So I wasn’t mad at Audrey for handling Soo-Lin some dose of aggressive-aggressiveness;

“How’s this for irony? Remember when you were divorcing Barry, and Warren handled the whole thing for you gratis, saving you thirty thousand dollars? Remember when you literally sobbed in gratitude, promising you’d make it up to us? Here’s your chance! I’ll let myself in with the key under the cupid.
One question. What do you want for dinner? I’m going to have a feast waiting when you get home.
Blessings, you!”

As well as, Bernadette getting to take her own jab at Soo-Lin’s expense: “FOX: You’re a Seattle-born secretary and you have no place in this house!”

You do not get to wreck a home and expect to go by unscathed. You do not mess up someone’s marriage just because they’re unhappy in it. That is nowhere your place to intervene. I received some closure when Soo-Lin had her moment of realization, alas a tad too late.

Surprisingly, Audrey Griffin grew to have the most the most character development, but the writing didn’t demonstrate it thoroughly with the constant skimming over her life. I wanted to hear more on Audrey and her son, Kyle, getting better. Kyle is a jackass with his antics, but he’s on the road to redemption with his unrelating, force-of-nature mother by his side.

One of those antics relate to Bee:

“(We weren’t allowed to wait in the office ever since Kyle Griffin was sent there one day, and when nobody was looking he went through the Galer Street directory and started calling all the parents from the main office number. So when the parents looked at their cell phones, it said there was an incoming call from Galer Street. They’d answer, and Kyle screamed, “There’s been an accident!” and hung up. From then on, all the kids had to wait outside.)”

  • The praise for this book also mentioned how it’s full of emails and letters, so I assumed they were interspersed throughout the chapters, but nope, they mean what they say. Where’d You Go, Bernadette starts with the Branch family then veers off into different characters orbiting them by sneaking into their personal exchanges and interaction. It makes for a particularly entertaining epistolary format, similar perhaps to Illuminae in a contemporary setting. I love dialogue-driven stories so transcript and emails are my favorite things to speed through a book.
  • I was surprised to find that it was solely told in that medium until the investigation concerning Bernadette’s whereabouts reaches a dead-end, and we return to the usual chapter format. So the characters get to comment on the first half of the book, aka the bunch of concentrated files, and they get to say what we’d been thinking throughout.

“You were a real rock star, Dad, walking down the aisle of the Microsoft Connector.”
“I didn’t write that!”
“Your girlfriend did!”

  • However, I feel like so much of this book focused on the action of getting to Antarctica and reconnecting the clues on Bernadette’s whereabouts (when in reality it’s just a major case of miscommunication) that we kind of missed expanding on the character-driven aspect of this story. I mean, the main conflict of the book is in the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but it’s about so much more than piecing together clues. It’s about family and owning up to your mistakes and coming of age and mother-daughter connections. The last one I had the most joy uncovering.

“I was going through an Abbey Road phase because I had just read a book about the last days of the Beatles, and I spent most of breakfast telling Mom about it.”

I wanted more moment like this that show how supportive and close Bee and Bernadette are… like with their mutual love for Cliff Mass, the weather boy *echo of wouldn’t you like to know weather-boy* who likes to uses fancy words and long-winded sentences to essentially say it’s just raining.

Oh my God, can someone please stop me before I write more about Cliff Mass?”

These revealing moments I found to be missing in the whirlwind to keep up with the plot. Details help me fall into a story and the characters, as it was written so wisely in Mitch Albom’s For One More Day: Details were something to grab on to, a way to insert myself into the story.

  • Going back to the start, Bernadette’s vulnerability when Bee was born struck a chord.

“Here’s what inconsolable looks like: me sitting in my car in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital, all the windows rolled up, wearing my hospital gown, twelve inches of pads between my legs and Elgie’s parka over my shoulders, Elgie standing outside in the dark, trying to make me out through fogged windows. I was all torture and adrenaline. I had no thoughts, no emotions. Inside me roiled something so terrible that God knew he had to keep my baby alive, or this torrent within me would be unleashed on the universe.”

She needed some sunshine after the big dark cloud that had been following her for years. And it came in the form of her daughter Bee.

“Was I really so bad that I deserved to have three years of my life destroyed for some rich prick’s practical joke? So I had some cars towed, yes. I made a gate out of trash doorknobs. I’m an artist. I won a MacArthur grant, for fuck’s sake. Don’t I get a break? I’ll be watching TV and see Nigel Mills-Murray’s name at the end. I’ll go nuts inside. He gets to keep creating, and I’m the one who’s still in pieces?”

I wanted to delve deeply into moments like these that came to shape the family.

  • Lastly, Elgie Branch does not deserve Bernadette in this universe or any alternate creation. Their relationship was another aspect that wasn’t expanded on, so I had nothing to hold on as to why these two even got together in the first place to start a family. So Elgie and his brash decision making can jump into infinity and beyond.

“You look for horses,” I said. “While you spent your whole life at work, me and Mom were having the best, funnest time ever. Mom and I lived for each other. She wouldn’t do anything close to getting drunk and walking next to a ship’s balcony because it would mean she might never see me again. That you think she would shows how little you know her. You look for horses, Dad.”

Bee knows Bernadette; you don’t.

Thank you for coming to my #4-most-watched TEDTalk of all time.

“From: Audrey Griffin
To: Soo-Lin Lee-Segal
I don’t give a fig about Ted. I don’t know who he is and I don’t care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.”

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