On Accumulation and Ann Patchett's The Dutch House

Despite Aesop's best efforts, the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" does little to glamorize the steadiness it aims to celebrate. Sure, the Tortoise wins the race, but everyone knows he's dull, and the only reason he comes in first is because the Hare is pompous and foolhardy. We do not wish to identify with Tortoise; we wish to be the smarter, more focused version of Hare.


Similarly, nature provides us numerous examples of impact over time - the way a stream of water can cut wide swaths into rock or the way the steady accretion of drops can create dripstone formations that boggle the senses. Still, who among us wants to watch a stalagmite form?

Forgive then this inadequate effort to celebrate the quiet accumulation of Ann Patchett novels among my collection. Patchett is a writer of greatness, reliable and steady and persistently good. If I regularly forget how much I appreciate her skill, the fault is entirely mine. (Some consolation, perhaps, that Eudora Welty has suffered the same fate in my meager recollection?) The Dutch House, however, may have changed that forgetfulness for good.


The Dutch House is about family, about siblings, about the countless ways in which we inflict pain upon each other and ourselves, in which we save each other and (possibly) ourselves. And oh, yes, it's about a house.


But is it really? The house is important, certainly. It reminds us of what happens when we give someone a gift that answers the desires of our own heart more than those of the supposed recipient. And it is an excellent symbol for the endurance of inherited things whether they be oil paintings or heart disease, hall tables or hair color.


The Dutch House introduces us first to young Danny Conroy and his older sister Maeve. We learn of their difficult childhood, their indifferent father, their absent mother, their calculating step-mother. Many have noted the similarities here to a classic fairy tale, but fairy tales do not afford their characters depth of experience, and Patchett certainly does. Perhaps the real magic is the way Patchett draws a rich and convincing character like Maeve while withholding so much critical information about her. Because we see her through her brother's adoring eyes, we know the image must be partial in both senses of the word, but we admire her all the same. We don't understand her, but we - like Danny - rely upon her.


Maeve is the story-teller, the truth-revealer. In the middle of the book, Maeve finally tells Danny the whole story of their father bringing Maeve and their mother to The Dutch House for the first time. This short section is brilliant, especially in its depiction of the class tensions present within the upwardly mobile. The whole scene is finely drawn and terribly uncomfortable, and then Maeve closes the story with an amazing line: "Our father was a man who had never met his own wife." And we are left to turn the page, still wanting to know more.


Like the person on the street who can see through the large glass panels into The Dutch House, we know our understanding of these characters is incomplete. But we look all the same, each time hoping to learn a bit more. The details - like the novels of Patchett themselves - accumulate slowly, and this accumulation is a thing to be celebrated.


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The Dutch House is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:


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