The driveway wasn’t as long as I remembered but the house seemed exactly the same: sunlit, flower-decked, gleaming. I had known since my earliest days at Choate that the world was full of bigger houses, grander and more ridiculous houses, but none were so beautiful. There was the familiar crunch of pea gravel beneath the tires, and when she stopped the car in front of the stone steps I could imagine how elated my father must have felt, and how my sister must have wanted to run off in the grass, and how my mother, alone, had stared up at so much glass and wondered what this fantastical museum was doing in the countryside.
I really enjoyed reading The Dutch House. Its brisk intensity kept me turning pages more quickly than the modest scale of action in the novel quite justified; its main characters, siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, are convincing creations, both, in their own ways, quietly forceful; the ‘family saga’ elements had an understated fairy-tale quality to them–absent mother, wicked step-mother, loss and recreation of fortune, all perfectly plausible but also just a bit too pat, as if they were all part realism, part magic trick, the kind all novelists rely on but done overtly, with a bit of a flourish.
At the same time, the novel made no sense to me at all, or at least its ostensible central premise did not. It’s not just that the Dutch House is too good to be true, with its elaborate moldings and frescoed ceilings and luxurious decor, but that it seems to have far more agency in the plot than a building should: it figures too largely in everyone’s decisions, loves, hatreds, and grievances.
Something about it, and thus about the novel, fell into place for me near the end, though, when Danny and Maeve return to the Dutch House decades after their step-mother ruthlessly evicted them. “The house looked the same as it did when we walked out thirty years before,” Danny says wonderingly:
Maybe a few pieces of furniture had been rearranged, reupholstered, replaced, who could remember? There were the silk drapes, the yellow silk chairs, the Dutch books still in the glass-fronted secretary reaching up and up towards the ceiling, forever unread. Even the silver cigarette boxes were there, polished and waiting on the end tables, just as they had been when the VanHoebeeks walked the earth . . .
Maeve and my mother floated into the room in silence, both of them looking at things they had never planned on seeing again: the tapestry ottoman, the Chinese lamp, the heavy tasseled ropes of twisted silk, blue and green, that held the draperies back.
The emphasis on the house’s stasis tripped me up: in thirty years, things must, surely, have been rearranged, reupholstered, replaced. If it’s a house, not just a literary device, then it should have changed over time, reflecting the lives lived in it and the wider life outside of it. Danny and Maeve have certainly changed, even finally giving up their frequent trips to stare at their former home with a potent mixture of nostalgia and resentment about their disinheritance. This visit should figure–and in fact it does–as a chance to measure that change and to put their memories of the Dutch House into perspective.
The house works fine in this way, but the odd quality it has throughout the novel and especially in this scene made me ask myself whether it was ever supposed to be a real house at all. I don’t mean whether Patchett based in on an actual house, but whether in the novel it really does work primarily, maybe even exclusively, as a metaphor. What Maeve and Danny are really contemplating when they park across the street from it all those times is their past, their family, their story, and in a way, isn’t that what we all do when we return, mentally or literally, to the places we used to live and the people we used to be? The particulars of the Conroys’ story are well detailed–Patchett is always a good storyteller–but in the end The Dutch House makes most sense to me not as a story about them but as a cautionary tale about how much we define ourselves by our pasts and how far, as a result, our lives are either limited or liberated by the space we imagine them in.
I realize that this is a perfectly obvious reading of The Dutch House: I’m sure I’m not the only reader to fixate on the house itself as symbol rather than setting. Perhaps reading it near Christmas is what made me feel that backwards pull so strongly–at this time of year especially I recognize in myself a similar temptation to dwell in (or on) a childhood space that may have been imperfect but in retrospect seems so certain, so much a part of my current identity even though it is no longer the setting for my life. Because Danny and Maeve are shunted unceremoniously out of their home, the abrupt transition makes it particularly hard for them to move on. Even as they make new homes and family ties they seem somehow stunted or unfinished as adults, while they keep going back and back again to brood about a place where they no longer belong.
Yet it’s their long-deferred return to the Dutch House itself that allows them, finally, to make it part of their present instead of an imposing embodiment of their thwarted past. On this visit they retrieve the portrait of Maeve that has stayed through the years, “hanging exactly where it always had been”:
Maeve was ten years old, her shining black hair down past the shoulders of her red coat, the wallpaper from the observatory behind her, graceful imaginary swallows flying past pink roses, Maeve’s blue eyes dark and bright. Anyone looking at that painting would have wondered what had become of her. She was a magnificent child, and the whole world was laid out in front her her, covered in stars.
The portrait, belatedly detached from the Dutch House, becomes its own symbol of forward-looking continuity, in contrast to the static relics that the portraits of the house’s former owners, the VanHoebeks, have always been. Lives should be movement and change, not museums, seems to be the novel’s idea–or one of its ideas, anyway. It’s not just that houses get new owners, but that we all need to work on living as best we can wherever we are.
Images: John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Elsie Palmer (1890) ; Edward Hopper, House by the Railroad (1925)