Magpie Book Club: Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House.

Five stars.

I can’t remember the last time I felt a mounting sense of panic as I neared the end of a book, but as I slid, inexorably, toward the final pages of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, I had one thought: Please don’t end.

I adored this book, which is equal parts a love story between siblings and a study of the way spaces — geographies, buildings, cities, homes — shape our lives as much as we shape them. The book is an enormous tenderness. Reading felt like touching a bruise I didn’t know I had and then could not stop brushing my fingers against. The characters are drawn with such incision and specificity and remarkable genuineness that I cannot believe I do not know Danny and Maeve in real life. I felt protective of them, finding myself desperate to defend or console them throughout the novel: “But Danny’s just trying to…!” I could feel the words forming in the back of my throat before I could remind myself I was reading, alight in the world of fiction. The loyalty and affection and unbound familiarity between these two siblings–ah! Never have I read a truer portrait of siblinghood, right down to the casually sparring exchanges and loud-but-easy-to-recover-from temper blow-overs.

And then there is The House, a treasure to encounter in Patchett’s precise brushstroke, where no detail is beneath her attention. I felt myself gliding through the descriptions of the ballroom and its ceilings, lingering over the descriptions of china and artwork and silver and that hidden drawer with the coins in the dining room buffet. I loved the feel of the unglamorous but familiar kitchen, at whose formica dinette table Danny would sit and eat his cereal or sandwiches with Jocelyn shucked peas for dinner, listening to her radio. Among the many achievements of this novel: Patchett’s astounding knack for creating spaces in language that feel just as evocative and powerful as The Real Thing. I am convinced it was me standing in the backyard of The Dutch House while the French doors from the ballroom were open and music and the tinkle of forks on china drifted out to me. I can see the scene as clear as day, and I know how cool it felt in the shade and how warm it looked inside, and the dynamics of the sound undulating across the lawn to me…!

Setting aside the aesthetic bliss of navigating the spaces in this novel, there is something powerful going on in the centricity of physical space to the narrative. The book leaves us wondering whether places define people or vice versa. The Dutch House, for example, is a mirror and a foil: it unaffectedly reflects who the characters are and yet performs like a character in its own right. It repels and “undoes” Elna, it attracts and defines Andrea, it represents all that Cyril has worked for his entire life and in many ways rewards him for his work ethic. Its loss changes the course of Maeve and Danny’s lives, and they spend much of their time re-negotiating their relationship to it and its inhabitants and to all it promised for them as children. In some sections, the House reads like a mirage or a metaphor of some kind: it is wealth, it is paradise lost, it is greed, it is status, it is security. In others, we experience its physical presence so soundly that we can almost feel the cool marble of the foyer under our feet or the sway of treetops outside Maeve’s (then Bright’s) bedroom window, and we turn and stare at the characters huddled inside of it with curious eyes: “Yes, the scene is set: what will you do now?”

I “read” this as an audiobook and I cannot rave more about the experience of listening to Tom Hanks’ narration. He reads as though caught in the act of remembering: some lines come slowly, as though they’re just barely pulled from the depths of nostalgia. Others come fast, humorous, clipped, in the way we deliver a quick retort to a sibling. And when he slows down, and his voice curls around a particularly moving observation or comment, the heart aches.

This book. Five stars. I loved it.

Post-Scripts.

+I also read The Glass Hotel and the chief word that comes to mind is: unpleasant. The book, which is more or less a fictionalization of Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme and the many people whose lives it affected, is an unpleasant reading experience. We read snippets of narratives from different characters and it is unclear which are “core” and which are “ancillary,” thwarting our natural readerly desire to form some sort of alliance or focal point. Sure, we can understand this to be an intentional “achievement” in the work, but as none of the characters are likeable or particularly interesting, I found this, in conjunction with the author’s jumping around from time period to time period, irritating rather than disorienting in service of some greater narrative cause. It also felt…dated? The Ponzi scheme, the “shades of gray” morality analysis: it all felt done before. Would not recommend.

+Currently finishing the last few sections of Such a Fun Age on audiobook –thought-provoking and impressively earnest around modern-day race relations and its many complicated nuances and subtexts, though a bit clumsily written? — and am eager to start Lady in Waiting on Audible next.

+Currently reading Ghosted as a fun sidecar (description: “Seven perfect days. Then he disappeared. A love story with a secret at its heart.” Yes pls.) Next up: Dirt (cooking memoir: “A hilariously self-deprecating, highly obsessive account of the author’s adventures, in the world of French haute cuisine”).

+I am hearing good things about Girl, Woman, Other (a Booker Prize Winner): “A magnificent portrayal of the intersections of identity and a moving and hopeful story of an interconnected group of Black British women that paints a vivid portrait of the state of contemporary Britain and looks back to the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.”

+Latest H&M finds: ordering this black jumpsuit (easy chic mom look with big black shades) and these $18 slides.

+Swooning over this rose print dress.

+This rosebud bikini for a little girl is BEYOND.

+In case you missed it: my diaper bag is 40% off.

+It took me a minute to erase the PTSD from late 90s strappy sandals from my mind, but these By Far sandals have been garnering quite the cult following — I have been seeing them EVERYWHERE lately and I have to admit: I’m now on board. I like these unfussy nude ones (wear with anything) after seeing them on the ultra-stylish Jenny Walton. Perfect for pairing with an LWD.

+The ideal bud vase for a spray of fresh peonies.

+Need this dress for my collection of breezy, OK-to-wear-during-the-day nightgowns.

+This print is so fun.

+Potential project if you’re bored and ambitious in the kitchen: buy Julia Child’s iconic cookbook and attempt some of the classics.

+Emory has reached a new level of dexterity and skill in her artwork: we now have faces! and legs! and hair! and suns! I am in awe of her ability to think of an object or person and recreate it with her own hand. I am contemplating framing two of my recent favorite masterpieces in these lucite frames.

+These upholstered beds are SO good — come in such fun colors! By the brand who made my children’s beloved bassinet, which is still sitting in the corner of our bedroom because we had intended to sell it before the pandemic settled but did not. And now I look at it and want to cry thinking that we will ever get rid of it. You can still find the exact style/colorway (espresso legs, beige nest) I have on eBay from time to time, and some stores still carry other colorways of that style here. But they now have a new model with a metal frame instead of the wood one I have, and it is sleek and chic, too.

+My full baby registry, in case you’re expecting.

+Thoughts on going from 0-1 vs 1-2 children and practical musings on preparing for a second child.

26 Comments

  1. Coming back to this post for your thoughts on Ghosted — did you finish it? I was doing a deep dive into iBooks’ store last night (when I read ebooks, I do so on my iPad) and saw that it’s only $1.99 at the moment! Worth it? xx

    1. Hi! Honestly, I would say skip. There are so many better “thriller/suspense” type books in this category. If you’ve not yet read it, try Ruth Ware’s “Turn of the Key” which I LOVED.

      xx

  2. I was blown away by Bel Canto. I can get that it could be a love/hate book but it was just so different! What a cast of characters!

  3. I love to hear your reading opinions! I read Circe from your recommendation and oh my…a lifetime fave! I want to reread it but am almost afraid because I loved it so much. Anyway, Dutch house did have a way about it that stuck with me. I liked it more than I thought I would especially because it felt like a slow burn- nothing overly extraordinary but still made you feel deep seeded emotions. I also recently read ‘the most fun we ever’ had and felt the same emotions. I’d be curious to hear your opinion.
    Sorry to be so long winded but again I really appreciate your voice.

    1. Don’t sweat it! I make a thousand per day…and publish them on a blog that thousands of people read. YIKES.

      xx

    2. Thank you so much for the kind comments — it makes me SO happy that you also fell in love with Circe on my recommendation. One of my absolute favorite books, ever, period. I have yet to find someone who doesn’t love that book.

      Just added “The Most Fun We Ever Had” to my reading list! Thank you — will be back with comments/thoughts!

      xx

  4. I loved The Dutch House as well, but could not disagree more with your review of The Glass Hotel. In fact, I was a little put off by how negative your review was – in fact, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all…” came to mind. I think you can steer your readers to books you love without denigrating the art of authors whose work you don’t enjoy. There are many books that I dislike, but I always appreciate the time & struggle it took to create the book & know that even though the book may not have clicked with me, it will mean the world to someone else.

    1. Hi Elise! First, thank you for the honest feedback, and for the obvious care and thought that went into this comment. I sat with it for the better part of this morning. Thank you for giving me the unanticipated opportunity to reflect on my writing. Second, I feel horribly if my review in any way upset you! I feel very strongly that any emotional reaction to a work of art is valid and I would never want to make any reader feel uncomfortable sharing her own experience with a book or on any subject for that matter. One of my chief goals with this blog is to promote civil discourse — and so I can see in rereading this review that I should have been more tempered in the way I spoke about the work and more inviting to contradictory perspectives. So — I am sorry, to you in particular and to any magpie reader who felt similarly here. I appreciate this feedback because I will write these book reviews with more of an eye toward promoting conversation rather than barreling down the hallway shouting my own perspective.

      At the same time: I also feel incredibly strongly that art is meant to be experienced, discussed, and reviewed openly and honestly. One of the chief joys of my life is sitting in a room talking about a book’s merits and demerits with girlfriends–or, as is more often the case (especially now), writing my thoughts on this blog and waiting anxiously for comments and feedback. I like seeing strong opinions from readers. I love seeing a healthy debate over a book’s narrative structure or character design or title. I deeply enjoy chewing on the strengths and weaknesses of a book. These practices sharpen my mind and enhance my critical faculties. They teach me how to be a better reader and a better writer — how to distinguish between what I like and what I do not, how to order my thoughts around what feels artful and what feels cheap, what feels true to life and what feels estranged from it.

      At any rate, I again thank you for taking the time to provide me with this feedback, and for giving me the prompt to speak more delicately. I will continue to share my honest reviews of books on the blog, but will endeavor to do so with more decorousness.

      Thank you — for reading my blog and for taking the time to engage here.

      xx

  5. I listened to the Dutch House after your earlier post and also loved it! Tom Hanks’s voice is so uniquely familiar — I really enjoyed it.

    I’m fortunate to have read your take on The Glass Hotel just now. I was planning to listen to it next on Audible, but it seems that the book’s structure wouldn’t be great for listening (even if you were to find the book enjoyable). I do like listening to books, and often fell asleep to “books on tape” when I was a kid. (Something I am so excited about for my daughter, when she’s old enough!) But I am a visual learner and don’t think I would have very good comprehension for a trickier read with lots of jumps between narratives. Something would be lost, for me at least, without the page breaks, etc.

    1. Agreed — perhaps they do something clever in the audiobook version by switching narrators (?) as there are multiple different narrators as well. But. Ehhhh. I’d skip it if I were you. I read it with my sister and she said: “I just can’t imagine who I’d ever recommend this book to.”

      SO glad you liked the Dutch House!! Let me know if you listen to anything else good. I’m pretty sure nothing will ever come close to The Dutch House. I’ve heard great things about Circe, though I loved READING that book so much I can’t imagine anything eclipsing it.

      xx

  6. I could not agree more. Favorite book I’ve read in a very long while, which was a nice surprise since I just couldn’t get into Commonwealth. I was sincerely distraught when the book ended. I read it quickly because I loved it so much, but at the same time, I wanted to read it slowly because I loved it so much. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Commonwealth once I finish slogging it out with The Signature of All Things.

    1. Yes — I don’t know if it’s the times or what, but I was devastated when it ended. Like, walked around in a funk! HA! I’ve also heard confusingly mixed reviews of Patchett’s other books…some people love and other people HATE “Bel Canto.” “The Signature of All Things” is a labor of love — I still can’t get over the extreme amount of detail in that book! WOW. But it is long and a lot.

      xx

  7. You have me totally convinced to read The Dutch House! I was lukewarm on it when I first heard about it, but your review has me dying to read it. I’m also keen to read Girl, Woman, Other!

    Also, hard agree re: Such a Fun Age — very interesting commentary and an engaging story, but not very well-written. Still found it entertaining, though!

    I’m currently reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and it’s pretty enjoyable so far (I’m partway into the second of four parts), with an engaging premise. Next up is Writers & Lovers by Lily King, which I am really excited to read!

    xx

    1. Ooo, great tsundoku list here…let me know what you think of all of these! Have now hard veryyyy mixed reviews of the Lily King book, which leaves me hesitant.

      xx

    2. Really! Tell me more … I’m curious. I haven’t heard any firsthand reviews yet, so I’m intrigued!!

      xx

    3. My sister (whose opinion I implicitly trust — one of the best-read ladies I know) just said it was “eh” and way over-hyped. That was all I needed to hear — ha! Will ask her for more details!

      xx

    4. Loved the Immortalists. It discusses the early AIDS crisis a bit and I read it around the same time as The Great Believers, and I felt, together, they really brought the period to life.

      I just read Writers and Lovers, felt eh about it. I really liked King’s other book Euphoria but they are completely dissimilar. I found it very hard to get into as the beginning of the book did not have a clear direction. Eventually came together but was a struggle.

      Re Bel Canto, it seems like one of Patchett’s more well-known books but I’m not sure why. I think some of her other books are better.

      Sorry I can’t help myself, I love giving and receiving book recommendations! Putting Signature of All Things on my list!

    5. Thanks for all of these reviews/comments! I miss our book club — have you maintained it?

      xx

    6. Jen, thank you so much! I just finished The Immortalists and it ripped my heart out. I also LOVED The Great Believers and agree, it really brought the AIDS crisis (something with which I’ve always been fascinated) to life.

      Thanks, too, for your thoughts on Writers & Lovers (and yours, too, Magpie author Jen!) I already have a copy and think I may give it a go, just for the simple reason that I already own it & was looking forward to it … but will keep your comments in the back of my mind as I read! xx

  8. I really liked Dutch House, but I think I liked Patchett’s book Commonwealth better. Patron Saint of Liars is another good one.

    Recently I read, and enjoyed, Island of Sea Women and My Lovely Wife. The first is a really interesting historical fiction novel and the second was a fun page turner. I always need to balance between serious and easy/fun reads!

    1. Thank you for the reminder about The Patron Saint of Liars, which has been sitting on my to-be-read pile for years! 🙂

    2. Ooh, thanks Jen! Definitely going to read more of Patchett, and added the other two to my list 🙂

      xx

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