“I see the past as it actually was,” Maeve said. She was looking at the trees.
“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House
Hansel and Gretel meet Cinderella’s stepmother in Patchett’s Gatsbyesque The Dutch House.
The overarching question of where is home and how much it truly defines us snakes throughout this novel. Our childhood homes tend to have a major impact since we consider them ours and since they provide us with a sense of safety; however, what happens when the said home is neither safe nor ours?
Raised by their fiercely entrepreneurial father, Maeve and Danny Conroy grow up in the Philadelphia suburbs in a 1922 mansion that was built by the VanHoebek family, who had made a fortune in cigarettes and filled their American home with all sorts of extravagant treasures. The plot skeleton of Patchett’s novel runs like a fairy tale, including a castle, a runaway mother, and a grasping stepmother, nevertheless, the author skilfully veers away from cliché and brings forth a narrative speckled with deep and important themes.
We follow the story of the Dutch House and its inhabitants from Danny Conroy’s perspective, which widens significantly as he grows up. Despite that, his older sister Maeve is the definite protagonist in this novel. She is Danny’s role model, teacher, protector, parent, and closest friend. We watch in silent rage as Maeve gets pushed by her stepmother, first out of her room, and then out of the house, together with Danny, in a resounding echo of Jane Eyre or Hansel and Gretel. Years pass, yet the siblings can never cut the umbilical cord that ties them to the Dutch House. They sit in Maeve’s car, watch the former home, and reminisce. And this goes on for years, until the past finds its way back into their lives and eventually makes a full circle.
It is the human relationships that Patchett has truly masterfully presented in her novel: marriage, family, parents, employees, carers, friends, and of course siblings are the magic threads woven into the fairytale-like narrative. However, it’s not just magic that binds Danny and Maeve to each other and to the house, it’s the simple fact that when you have nobody left in the world, you hold on to each other for dear life, and when you have nowhere else to go, you keep going back home.
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