Danny’s mom had left when he was three; he was eight when Andrea Smith first came on the scene, but he and Maeve dismissed any idea of permanence. Andrea persisted, though; Andrea was fascinated with every detail of The Dutch House and Van Hoebeek family, who had made their fortune in packaged cigarettes.
Had Maeve and Danny paid more attention, they might have seen the signs, they might have predicted, but not prevented, it: just three years after she had first stood in front of the Van Hoebeek portraits in the drawing room, Andrea married Cyril, and took up residence in The Dutch House with her daughters. No longer were they the comfortable Conroy trio, lovingly cared for by Sandy and Jocelyn.
Danny had counted on following his canny father into real estate and construction; instead, Maeve insisted he study medicine at Columbia: their father’s trust, grudgingly dispensed by Andrea, was covering the not-inconsiderable cost. And on visits home, the siblings would park on Van Hoebeek Street, regard The Dutch House, and fume over their stolen inheritance, their self-made father’s fortune.
Maeve, aware Cyril’s humble beginnings, was the most resentful; Danny had “never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.” Not until a career had been gained and discarded, and a marriage and children made, some twenty-seven years after they had been ejected from The Dutch House, did Maeve and Danny finally acknowledge what their obsession had done to them: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long”
While Danny’s wife seems resentful of his close relationship with his sister, it is not until a certain, somewhat familiar old woman turns up at Maeve’s hospital bed that he realises: “I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen… ‘Danny!’ she would call up to me. ‘Breakfast. Move yourself.'”
This is very much a character-driven story, and it clearly demonstrates Patchett’s literary skill: her characters are interesting and allowed to grow and develop, to display insight and utter wise words. The bond between the siblings is so well portrayed, it’s impossible not to feel for them. Like Anne Tyler, Patchett manages to make the lives of fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things worth reading about.
Patchett’s prose is wonderful: “The madder Maeve got, the more thoughtful she became. In this way she reminded me of our father – every word she spoke came individually wrapped” and “Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundles together”. And that striking cover? It neatly ties the whole thing together, beginning and end. What a wonderful read!!