I loved Ann Patchett’s last novel and that caught me by surprise, because I had liked some of her earlier books but she had never been one of those authors I felt I must read and must look out for a new book.
Not until that book made me look out for this book.
When I first caught a glimpse I saw that it was a beautiful object, when I read the premise of the story I was intrigued, and when I started reading I was captivated.
I thought of it for some time after I had finished reading, and I realised that it was a book that I had loved on a number of different levels.
It’s a book about people. Many books are, but this is one of those books that make you feel that that you are reading about real people, that you might have mutual friends, and that a friend might have told you some of this story, because there are a great many people in the world who have stories that are more than worthy of retelling.
I believed in the people in this book. I believed they lived and breathed and that their stories were true.
This is also a book about a house
Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.
The Dutch House was named not for its architecture but for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks, who had built it when they prospered in the twenties. Their home boasted Delft mantels, marble floors, ornate fireplaces and gilt ceilings; it was adorned with silk chairs, tapestry ottomans and oil paintings; and it was a house like no other.
By the late forties the Van Hoebeeks had lost everything, and so they sold the Dutch House to Cyril Conroy, an ambitious property developer who had risen from humble beginnings. He acquired everything – the house, the grounds, the furnishings, the staff – and only when he brought his family to see the house for the first time did he tell them that he owned it and it was their new home. His wife, Elna, and their children, Maeve and Danny, were transplanted from a small apartment to a grand, ready-made new home and lifestyle with no warning at all.
Cyril saw the Dutch House as a the ultimate symbol of his success, but Elna saw it rather differently. She saw it as a work of art but she knew that she could not be happy there, that it would never be her home; and her spirit faded, she began to spend more and more time away from the house, until that day came when she didn’t come ‘home’ again.
It wasn’t long until an attractive young widow with two daughters found her way into Cyril’s life, and into the Dutch House. She would become his second wife, she would take possession, and when the children of the first marriage would be pushed out. They would return to look at the Dutch House, but they would keep their distance and they would have to make their own way in the world.
All of that had lovely echoes of fairy tales. These echoes were strong and yet that story felt utterly real and natural.
The story unfolded beautifully. It had a clear path, and there were many interesting developments along that path. Some of those developments I expected, but some I did not. There were times when I thought that the story was going to go one way but it went another, and so I was always interested, and though I had an idea of where things might be going I was never entirely sure.
Those stories had the untidiness of real lives. Mistakes of the past were repeated, but maybe that is inevitable.
“We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
The evolution of the characters and their relationships was fascinating. As the younger characters grew up and the adult characters aged some things changed and some things remained the same; and though some of their actions seemed improbable their lives all felt utterly real. My perceptions of characters didn’t change too much but as I spent more time with them I came to understand them much better.
They weren’t characters to love, I didn’t want them to be more that friends of friends, but I did want to learn their stories.
This stories had much to say, they were written with intelligence and insight, and they were a joy to read.