It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
This month we have a new Wife joining us! Please welcome Cynthia to the group! Cynthia is a former technical writer business analyst, Peace Corps Volunteer, and teacher from Texas who traded that life in for two suitcases and a string of foreign addresses. Or at least that was the plan until COVID19 hit. You can find her at her blog, I Love Days and I hope you’ll pop in and read her take on The Dutch House.
And as always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett! There are definitely spoilers ahead.
A note before we get to it: I read The Dutch House at Christmas, before it was selected as one of our Literary Wives picks. So I didn’t read it with that lens and it was a dense read from the library which means I didn’t re-read it for this. All that to say, I’m clearly the slacker of the Literary Wives bunch.
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
I’m glad that I read this one over Christmas because it meant that I had big chunks of time to sit with it. As ever Ann Patchett is the master of the character driven novel, creating a layered relationship between a brother and sister that you don’t see that often in literature. I always enjoy these decades-long stories of a single family and all the ways that they betray each other, and The Dutch House definitely scratched that itch for me.
What does the book say about being a wife?
There were three marriages at the centre of this one: Cyril and Elna, Danny and Maeve’s parents, Cyril and Andrea, the stepmother, and then later Danny and his wife. None of the marriages are built on any version of truth, rather they are built on fairy tales and idealizations. Cyril dreams of owning the Dutch House, of living a big life, the kind that was only ever dreamed about where he grew up; Elna lives to help the less fortunate, the excess of the life Cyril has built for them disgusting her. Andrea only ever seems to want to possess the house, not seeming to care for Cyril except in what he can give her. And Danny actively lies to his wife, buying and flipping properties behind her back because he knows that she wouldn’t approve.
But as Maeve and Danny are the centre of this story, we only get their views of the marriages and the wives. Maeve in particular builds her mother up to be some kind of saint. When Elna reappears, she is very much not that. Each woman a portrait of wifedom, lacking the animation of the real thing.
Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! In September we’ll discuss Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen.