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Books and Beyond

For my review of “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett, c 2019, I am using the tools I learned as an English major in college. My assignment: tell your Books & Beyond readers about characters, setting, plot, point of view, theme, and style.

There are two main characters — Maeve and Danny Conroy. Danny is the narrator. He eventually becomes an expert in real estate like his father was. Maeve, his older sister, works for a company that ships frozen vegetables. We meet their father, who dies when he is 53 years old. His first wife was Elna, and his second wife Andrea, who brings her two children into the marriage. Other important characters are the women who worked for the Conroys — Sandy, Jocelyn, and Fluffy. Danny’s wife is Celeste (they get divorced toward the end of the book), and Maeve doesn’t get married. We see her on the cover of the book. She has dark eyes and hair, and is wearing a red wool mackinaw. In a way, the Dutch house is a character in the book. (Would my undergraduate adviser chastise me for saying this?)

I’ll continue with the setting. The Dutch House is a three-story house in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia. Mr. Conroy bought it from the VanHoebeeks, and he leaves the framed photograph of the Dutch couple hanging in the house, which was built in the early 1920s. (The Dutch name is pronounced Van Who-bake.) You could see linden trees around the yard. There were no roads close by when the house was built. Danny and his wife Celeste and their two children live in New York.

The Dutch House is a big part of the plot all the way through this 337-page novel. Danny and his older sister Maeve grow up in the house, but later when their father remarries and his new wife Andrea wants them to move out, the house does not drop from the plot. Every so often, the brother and sister go back and park in front of the Dutch House and talk about what went on in the past, what is going on now, and what they might be looking ahead to. They often disagree. Their subject is family almost all of the time. And family for them includes Sandy, Jocelyn, and Fluffy.

The money left to Danny and his sister from their father was in a trust for college education for Danny, and Andrea’s girls Robin and Bright. His second wife wouldn’t let him leave a lot of his money to Danny and Maeve. So Danny continues his education until he is a medical doctor. It would take many years for that title, and Maeve wanted him to use most of the trust. When Danny was a resident, on his way to becoming an M.D., he was already buying real estate and working to improve apartments and houses.

Scrambled is the word that describes the plot.

Point of view isn’t difficult to identify. Danny is always telling us what is happening and who is involved. However, I do believe the reader sees other points of view because of his thorough report of conversations with everyone in the book.

I left theme for last. Life is difficult, even when deep love is present. Here’s one quote from Danny that gets at the heart of his reaction to daily life: “I feel like we just went to the moon” (p. 315). I think the theme leads us to questions: How do Danny and Maeve approach life on the east coast of our country? Did they respond to difficult aspects of their lives with wisdom? Were their choices in life controlled by how they were raised?

Then what I did with theme was apply these questions to myself. Do I have day-by-day memories of my life growing up in central Iowa? Did I pay attention like Danny does? Did I talk to my brothers and sisters, saying exactly what was on my mind? Could I write about it in such detail?

Style? The language is consistent with who Danny is. He is intelligent, and always observant of whatever is going on. He is very close to his sister Maeve. Another feature of his style to identify is that the timeline of the story he wants to tell goes back and forth. Is that how you would tell about your life? I’m curious: Would a narrator from southwestern Minnesota tell a life story this way?

I read the last chapter on the morning of Feb. 9, 2020, finishing at 10:55 a.m., the day described in my journal as 8 inches of snow the night before, drifts on the pathway to the garage, and all church services in the area cancelled. I returned the book to the library on due date Feb. 10 (after our lane was plowed), without any underlinings or penciled notes on the pages. My journal is full.

Patchett’s books are very popular. Plum Creek Library System has her titles in print form, plus some audio books. Here’s an interesting title: “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay/Robert Dawson”; foreword by Bill Moyers; afterword by Ann Patchett.

Reading and writing are my favorite past times any season. On the snowy day I finished “The Dutch House,” I gave myself an assignment: see if you can imitate Ann’s style. Here goes:

On Saturday Feb. 8, we had attended a farewell reception at MAFAC on North 3rd Street for Jim and Marianne Zarzana. We’ve known them for the 30 years they’ve lived here. They both taught at Southwest Minnesota State University and both of them are writers. Marianne visited us here in the country with their baby daughter in 1989. After the reception we had dinner with them and friends Marcy and Ryan at Bello Cucina. Our waitress told us about her being in Mongolia after graduating from SMSU. Some people we know walked by our table and waved. For the first time in ages, we ordered dessert from the menu to end our meal. But to tell you the truth, the dessert was Howard and me being with our long-time friends, sitting around a small table, and visiting about our lives — past, present, and future. Our waitress took pictures of us before we hugged and said goodbye.

At 1:30 p.m., my husband and I had parked on West Lyon Street across from the U.S. Post Office, and as we walked around the corner we went into the Lyon County Museum to say hello to Jennifer and walk through the room that has Mark Schwanebeck’s Snowmen and Father Time exhibit. I had Mark as a student in the SMSU Education Department in the 1970s, and had been in his 6th grade classroom at Park Side Elementary School many times. Mark is an only child, and he is making so much of his life. I remember seeing him with his mother, Eleanor, at First Lutheran in Marshall years ago. One time Mark and I sat by each other at a genealogy conference at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. I am from a family of six children, four of us left now to tell one another about daily life — what birds we see out the window, the menu for lunch, the weather, our life in Central Iowa in mid-20th century, what books we are reading.

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