The Dutch House
Written by: Ann Patchett
Reviewed by: Brad Williamson
Genre: Family Saga
With The Dutch House, Ann Patchett invites us into a subtle and unbiased world of hatred and forgiveness, vivid enough to be a true story. The novel reads with a clarity and level of pent-up emotion usually reserved for non-fiction. This rawness is why the book is good, but it’s also what holds it back from being great.
Narrated by the youngest son of a New England family, The Dutch House chronicles their lives amidst the social backdrop of the 1950s and 60s. Patchett paints her characters thoroughly on the mind of the reader clearly as any photograph or movie; their motives, actions, and desires feel like the expected mishaps of a beloved yet misguided family member. In just a few pages the people populating the pages become real as any living person.
The plot also moves along well, first establishing a firm foundation but never overstaying any single time period’s welcome. Even when the narrative jumps from the past to the present and back again, it isn’t confusing. Patchett keeps the prose grounded and sensible, which makes not only the plot easy to grasp but also the characters easy to comprehend.
But even with good pacing, clear characters, and crisp prose, the story fails to find a foothold. I enjoyed learning about the family, reading passages about the house and past reflections, contemplating the social issues Patchett subtly weaves into the fabric of the book, but with each page I liked, and every chapter I thought was good, I drifted farther and farther away from loving it.
Maybe this is Patchett’s goal, what she wants to achieve by making the house – a house that is neither haunted nor famous – a primary character. It’s as if she’s saying a thing or a person can only be what it is, and people have the choice whether to embrace this reality or not. We cannot change the truth, but we must choose how to live with it.
Ultimately the book was good, undeniably well written, at times even captivating and beautiful, but uninspired and lacking focus. The Dutch House begins by asking great questions and challenging the reader to think, but by the end it feels like it is preaching, demanding you to listen instead of making up your own mind. I liked the book, but it irked me at parts and I fell just short of loving it.