A Fairy Tale for Our Time: Ann Patchett’s ‘The Dutch House’

It’s been labeled a modern fairy tale, and I would say that’s an accurate description of Ann Patchett’s latest book, ‘The Dutch House.’ Insofar as most fairy tales, original fairy tales, were not what we often think of today. The Brothers Grimm version of ‘Cinderella’ involves butchered feet, and in ‘Snow White,’ the evil queen faces a punishment worse than death, forced into wearing burning-hot shoes and dancing until she does finally die. 

There may not be butchered feet and burning shoes in ‘The Dutch House,’ but there is plenty of loss and sadness in the lives of Danny, the narrator, and his sister, Maeve. And at the center of this story looms, yep, you guessed it, the Dutch House. 

The house, located in Elkins Park, Pa., is the former residence of the VanHoebeeks, a wealthy dutch family that grew their fortune from cigarettes during the second world war, and then lost it during the depression. Years later, the house decrepit and flea-infested, Cyril Conroy decides to buy it for his family — his wife, Elna, and children, Danny and Maeve. 

But the house is not the fantasy that Cyril imagined. Elna Conroy sees the house as a burden, as an overblown display of wealth she hadn’t realized she had, and was not prepared to wield. In response, the reader finds out later, she flees to India, leaving her children in the care of the household staff — a nanny named Fluffy, a housekeeper named Sandy, and a cook named Jocelyn. After the disappearance of his wife, Cyril turns in on himself, becoming even more of a stranger to his two children. 

And then one day, Cyril brings a woman home, Andrea, a soon-to-be evil stepmother. The novel begins here, in front of the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still looming over the parlor’s fireplace. Andrea comes with two daughters, although the girls turn out to be nothing like the stepsister parodies we have become accustomed to in Disney-fied fairy tales. They are sweet where their mother is spiteful, and they adore Danny and Maeve while Andrea merely tolerates them. 

The novel follows Danny and Maeve through the next five decades of their lives, the only constant through the years being one another. This central sibling relationship is explored with depth and compassion, and I found myself rooting for the both of them right from the start. While Patchett also looks at affluence — wealth as a burden, as something once had and then lost, as power and as a weapon — the forefront of the book is more closely focused on family and the bonds that carry us through our lives. Wealth is an interesting topic, no doubt, but what is far more gripping, and far more powerful, is how we define family, and the people we decide to treat as such. 

The ending, when it comes, is necessary. And while it left me feeling Danny’s sorrow, I had an inkling all along; an inevitability that you nevertheless hoped wouldn’t pan out. Even so, I tore through the book end to end, unable to put it down. Even at the last page, the book left me wanting more. And what else can we ask for in a work of fiction?