Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ann Patchett's The Dutch House: This Fall's Must Read

I was an Ann Patchett fan before I moved to Nashville--probably even before I realized she lived in Nashville. I first discovered her when I read Bel Canto, which remains a favorite. Since she partnered with Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books, one of the best independent bookstores anywhere, she has kept busy not only writing her own books but championing those of other writers here in Nashville and elsewhere.

When I first meet the college freshmen I teach, I give my soapbox speech about balancing academics and the other aspects of life. Don't live in Nashville and never leave campus, I advise them. I suggest they discover all the freebies and good deals for college students. They need to visit the Frist Art Museum (frequently), Cheekwood Mansion and Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Ryman Auditorium. And they need to discover Parnassus Books, within an easy walking distance of campus (something I know, having attended Lipscomb when freshmen weren't allowed to have cars. I walked or biked to Green Hills before Green Hills was cool.)

Patchett's most recent novel The Dutch House lives up to the high expectations of her readers. Told by Danny, this is the story of two siblings brought up by their father in a grand and unusual house in the suburbs outside Philadelphia when their mother abandons the family. The story takes a Cinderella turn when their father remarries and then dies suddenly, leaving Danny and his sister Maeve without family or a home.

Whenever Danny returns as an adult to visit his sister, the two of them invariably find themselves parked across the street from their former home, still occupied by their stepmother. Over time, they grow more nostalgic over the shared time in the car than in the house.

I sometimes had to remind myself that Danny's voice was the creation of a female writer. Everything about his character was believable. The dynamics of his relationship with Maeve was genuine without being over-sentimentalized. I liked them both. The other characters in the story--the two sisters who kept the Dutch House, as well as Fluffy, Danny's baby nurse who lost her job for striking the boy with a spoon, were believable and endearing. Even the stepmother Andrea and Elna, their long-absent mother, are much more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

While conventional wisdom advises against judging a book by its cover, the illustration on this particular novel, a rendering by a Nashville artist of the painting of young Maeve described in the book is both beautiful and haunting. When I think of iconic book covers, I expect this one to join the list; I also think this novel will be on reading lists for years to come.


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