“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

— from The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

By David R. Altman

There are very few novels where the prose is so eloquent, so memorable, that it immediately elevates the story into the upper echelon of literature’s greatest books.

The Dutch House, written by the brilliant Ann Patchett, is one of those books.

Each of us has our favorites. Mine include All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Just as these four books are extraordinary stories about families and relationships, so is The Dutch House.

Ann Patchett’s book is an unforgettable tale of a dysfunctional family’s life inside a suburban mansion that came to be known as the Dutch House (its original owners were wealthy Dutch immigrants, who built the house in 1922). The house provides both the intrigue and depth of this story:

“From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.”

This story is told by the youngest family member, Danny Conroy, whose close friendship with his older sister Maeve forms the foundation of this book that moves through each of their lives.

You’ll read the memorable (and at times heart-wrenching) exchanges between Danny and his father (sort of a Great-Santini-type, minus the domestic violence). Danny and Maeve, five years his senior, share in their observations of their father’s distant relationship with his children and his obsession with his work. Here, Danny writes about something his father once told him:

“The only way to really understand what money means is to have been poor,” he said to me when we were eating lunch in the car. “That’s the stroke you have against you. A boy grows up rich like you, never wanting for anything, never being hungry”— he shook his head, as if it had been a disappointing choice I’d made— “I don’t know how a person overcomes a thing like that.”

This is Patchett’s eighth book, and it was published last year (available at the Braselton Library and others). The Dutch House was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2020.

The story of the Conroy children, whom the readers intimately come to know over the book’s twenty chapters, are the source of a quickening pace that rotates among the book’s central characters, including three housekeepers who helped to raise Danny and Maeve—adding to both the depth and complexity of this family drama.

While I will ignore the impulse to create a spoiler as it relates to the book’s conclusion, suffice it to say that the story takes the reader through myriad events of the modern family, from sibling relationships to divorce, from blended families to dislocation and death.

Patchett writes with passion and power as this story, which takes place from childhood through the middle-age of its narrator, creates a remarkably rich and poignant tale of an American family. Another example:

“Sometimes our mother was awake, and she would see Maeve at the door and lift up the covers and Maeve would float across the room to the bed without making a sound and slip into the warm curve of her body. She would fall asleep without thinking, her mother’s arms around her, her mother’s heartbeat and breath behind her. No other moment in life could match this.”

Like Scott Fitzgerald, Patchett’s prose is really more like poetry.

Patchett, who spent years writing for magazines before publishing her first book in 1992, also owns Parnassus, one of the nation’s most well-known independent bookstores in her home town of Nashville, Tennessee.

Whether it’s her explosive story of Bel Canto or the family intrigue of The Dutch House, not only will you find Patchett’s narrative compelling, you will also find in each of her books a uniquely poetic, compassionate voice, perhaps unsurpassed among contemporary American authors.

Hoschton resident David R. Altman is a member of the National Books Critics Circle and the American Academy of Poets. He can be reached at altmandavidr@gmail.com

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