#LiteraryWives: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book! And welcome to new member – Cynthia!

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Pre-blog, Ann Patchett was one of my favourite writers. I haven’t yet read any of her recent books, so reading this one was a treat.

Goodreads synopsis: At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.

Warning: May contain spoilers!

The relationships people have with each other in this book are all so well captured, whether we’re able to relate to them or not. Whereas I’m still trying to understand Cyril’s relationships, Danny and Maeve’s is very clear and believable – and the best part of the book for me. Danny must really be besotted by his sister to go through years of medical school and residency knowing he has no intention to use any of it when he’s done!

Maeve is an interesting character. We know a lot about her from Danny; what she’s like as a sister, what she looks like, her opinions about their past, and what she does for a living. But we really don’t ever know anything about her personal life. It wasn’t as common for a woman to live on her own then. Did she choose her life, or did she passively let it go by? It’s as if her life revolves around the Dutch house and what happened there, and she can’t let it go. The same might have happened to Danny as well, except that Maeve pushed him to do things – although, not always for the right reasons.

But we overlay the present onto the past. 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,

Who wouldn’t love the literary references Patchett puts in her book…

That opening scene is lavish with literary allusions. The motherless child hiding in the curtains is from “Jane Eyre.” Children observing adults from the top of the stairs recalls Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew.” And any tight, inscrutable sibling bond will always summon up “The Turn of the Screw,” which Maeve happens to keep on her nightstand. Later we see her reading “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson’s novel about a pair of siblings abandoned by their mother. (The New York Times)

And what about the resemblance to fairy tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel? This book is packed with good discussion points.

Here’s ours…

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Danny and Maeve are at the heart of this book, but there are three (married) women who play a big part in their lives: 1) Their mother, 2) Their step-mother, and 3) Danny’s wife, Celeste.

Their mother (whose name I can’t remember – does she have one?)

As the narrator of the story, Danny refers to his mother as “my mother” or “our mother”. Because she left when he was very young, he doesn’t remember her – Maeve has always been his person. Maeve, however, remembers their mother and her disappearance was a traumatic event in her life.

Why did she leave? When she and her husband were first married with young children, they were poor. Cyril thought, wrongly, that she would be delighted to be surprised with a big, beautiful house with servants and a car. But, instead, it fought with her values and beliefs. In the end, those values took priority over her family and she left to help those less fortunate, knowing that her family would be cared for.

“Our father was a man who had never met his own wife.”

The step-mother, Andrea

Cyril eventually re-married. And when he did, it was to a woman who he knew wanted the house and life he had to offer. Unfortunately, she wanted it more than she wanted the family that came with it. Bit by bit, Andrea began taking control and changing things until Danny and Maeve did not feel welcome in their own house.

All of that changed after Andrea arrived. She made weekly menus for Jocelyn to follow and gave her opinion on every course: there wasn’t enough salt in the soup; she had given the girls too many mashed potatoes. How could they be expected to eat so many mashed potatoes? Why was Jocelyn serving cod when Andrea specifically told her sole? Could she not have troubled herself to check another market? Did Andrea have to do everything?

On the other hand, maybe it was Andrea who never felt welcome as Cyril’s wife?

Our cruelty became the story: not our father’s death but how we had excluded her from it.


Celeste’s experience of being a wife is the easiest for me to understand. She feels she is competing with the relationship Danny has with his sister, and believes that they are unnaturally close. She also has to adjust her idea of what it would mean to be Danny’s wife when she learns that he doesn’t intend to practice medicine once he graduates. I think she ends up feeling as though she’s more invested in their marriage than he is.

Going out with Celeste felt the least like dating. She asked almost nothing of me and she gave the most in return. She was agreeable and cheerful, pretty without being distracting.

The poetry courses and the senior thesis on Trollope were all well and good but I was what she’d been studying. She meant to keep the tiny apartment clean and make dinner and eventually have a baby. Women had read about their liberation in books, but not many of them had seen what it looks like in action. Celeste had no idea what she was supposed to do with a life that was entirely her own.

The Big Expectation (of being a wife)

And the one many still cannot get past.

Out of anger towards their mother, and thinking of his own kids, Danny asks Maeve, “What kind of person leaves their kids?” At which point, Maeve shouts, “Men! Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it. The Buddha left and Odysseus left and no one gave a shit about their sons. They set out on their noble journeys to do whatever the hell they wanted to do and thousands of years later we’re still singing about it.”

From a review of The Dutch House in The New York Times:Our willingness to serve each other represents the best of us, according to Patchett, and it is almost as if she wants to take the notion of motherhood and release its power into the commons — what if we were willing to mother one another, mother strangers? But she is also always full of warnings about the self-abnegation it requires, especially of women — and never more clearly than in this new novel.

A good line:Sandy shook her head. “Boys,” she said, and with that single word excused me from all responsibility.”


Next Literary Wives discussion – September 7, 2020: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen – Join us! 

23 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

  1. ilovedays says:

    Really enjoyed the list of literary allusions…I was not able to pick up on all of these while reading, so it’s fun to find out about more. Totally agree with what you said about Celeste realizing she’s more interested in the quality of the marriage; wish we could have seen more from her point of view but that would be tough since Danny is the narrator. You’ve highlighted here the importance of gender roles and expectations to this story and how we see the characters. Nice.

    • Naomi says:

      I hadn’t caught all the allusions either, which is why I was happy to find that review in the New York Times.
      I thought having Danny as narrator worked well for the book, but it did limit what we know about some of the other characters. I would love to ask the others some questions!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    That’s a brilliant final quote, isn’t it. So glad you enjoyed this one, Naomi. I thought Andrea became a much more nuanced character as the story unfolded, particularly towards the end.

    • Naomi says:

      True! The ending was so interesting – with Elna taking care of Andrea in the house she had left because she hated it so much. Yet, it all made sense somehow. (I decided a long time ago that spoilers are allowed in my LW posts. 🙂 )

  3. Karissa says:

    I love looking at this book from this angle of wives. I found Celeste the easiest to understand too. Andrea made for an easy villain but when their mother (what was her name?) and her reasons for leaving are more fully shown, it also seemed to offer more nuance to who Andrea might be. I still would have liked to hear at least some of the story from Maeve’s perspective though. I don’t think this is her best but I do love Patchett’s work.

    • Naomi says:

      I would love to hear from several of their perspectives! But especially Maeve – what was she really thinking?
      The mother’s name is Elna! (Everyone else remembered it.)
      My favourite is still Bel Canto. 🙂

  4. madamebibilophile says:

    Like you, I really enjoy Ann Patchett but I’ve lost track of her more recent novels. This does sound a good read, I like the sound of the different complex relationships. I really should get back to her!

  5. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve seen a few reviews of this book and I think I’d really like it. And I’m not sure this was intentional, but I feel sorry for poor Celeste after reading your review! Does she suffer in this book?

    • Naomi says:

      She’s definitely easy to feel sorry for. Someone could also argue that she did it to herself – that she should have recognized before marriage that he was never really going to be hers, he’s always going to be Maeve’s. But I felt sorry for her. Her parents didn’t do a very good job teaching her that she has value on her own – that she doesn’t need to marry to have value.

  6. buriedinprint says:

    LOL I love that last quotation. I kinda skimmed along your post because I still think I might read this one at some point. The last one I read of hers was State of Wonder and I thought it would have made a great bookclub choice because there were so many complications, so many motivations in particular, to try to sort through as a reader. It wasn’t necessarily a story that I liked, but I loved the telling of it, her perspective on difficult questions (perhaps answerless) and how I wanted things to work out even for characters who were actually problematic in specific ways. Not sure if any of this resonates with this newer books…maybe not.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! There’s so much to discuss about things that are perhaps answerless. Motherhood especially stands out to me as an endless discussion about what it means to be a mother, how far you should go to ‘do your own thing’ versus make sacrifices for your children. And family ties: when are your ties so strong that they are actually holding you back?

      • buriedinprint says:

        Interesting! The way that you’ve phrased this made me think that one could see State of Wonder in those terms too, in some more obvious ways (but there would be spoilers) but also in the sense of, who far a researcher should go in doing “their own thing” versus making sacrifices for the good of society. You’ve given me something new to think about when I return to Patchett territory: thank you!

      • Naomi says:

        You’re right – they sound very similar that way. It’s been too long since I read State of Wonder to have thought of it, but you’re helping to remind me. I’m happy to have given you something to think about! 🙂

  7. Susan says:

    I liked this novel but didn’t love it. Mostly I liked the beginning with the big estate that their real estate investor father purchases outside of Philly and Danny and his sisters’ youths and caregivers there. But once their fortunes change, the story seems to spin its wheels a bit about Danny and Maeve’s long lost mother and their stepmom who keeps the mansion for herself and throws them out. I found the middle a bit slow and had to push myself a little to finish it. There’s some development at the end that changes the dynamic about the mother and stepmother in the siblings’ lives … so that made me wake up a bit but didn’t fully redeem much about them for me. It seems a novel about family mistakes, forgiveness, and the bonds of a sister and brother. I commiserated with them and wish their lives in the Dutch House, a mansion worthy of their strong childhood bonds, had never changed. So says my review. I had to reread to remember.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think you’re alone – before reading the book I saw some mixed reviews… I think mostly saying they didn’t love it as much as some of her others. Commonwealth being one of them. But I haven’t read that one yet. I’m eager to now! Have you?

      • Susan says:

        No I haven’t read Commonwealth. Oddly I think my favorite Patchett book is her nonfiction book called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. that one interested me!

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