Early in Ann Patchett’s new novel, “The Dutch House,” the narrator, Danny, poses a question to his sister, Maeve:
“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”
They’re sitting in a car parked in front of their childhood home, a 1922 mansion outside Philadelphia that was built by a Dutch couple and later bought by their father as a surprise for his wife. (Turns out, she hated it.) The house looms at the center of this novel – both setting and character in a tale that explores family bonds, nostalgia and the perplexities of memory.
“We overlay the present onto the past,” Danny tells his sister. “We look back through the lens of what we know now, so . . . that means the past has been radically altered.”
This novel, Patchett’s eighth, spans more than five decades of Danny’s life, from his vivid first memory involving a nanny named Fluffy to his mother’s departure and his father’s subsequent marriage to a pretty young widow with two daughters. Danny and his sister eventually are exiled from the Dutch House and thrown into poverty, but they stick together, their sibling loyalty as unshakeable as their attraction to the well-worn house.
Much of the novel takes place in a parked car outside the Dutch House, the brother and sister smoking cigarettes, recounting memories and wondering about their futures. At Maeve’s insistence, Danny completes medical school with no intention of becoming a doctor, but merely to spend down the family’s education trust. He finds a passion in real estate but falls into marriage, all the while haunted by the mystery surrounding his mother’s disappearance.
Once again, Patchett deftly weaves her ensemble cast around a vivid setting – so vivid, in fact, that if you pause and close your eyes between chapters, you can almost see the Dutch House tower before you. And oh, what a view.