The Dutch House has some resemblance to a fairy tale, complete with a mother who disappears, a distant father who falls under the spell of a wicked stepmother, three kind servants who are like Cinderella’s mice, and a beautiful castle-home that acts as the structural center of the novel. Several of the key characters have the one dimensional nature of fairy tale figures—the mother, father, step-mother, and the unlikeable wife of the narrator.
Fortunately, that narrator, Danny, is an interesting and complex character, especially when his narration is read in the audio version by Tom Hanks. Danny, who is the son of the household, narrates a story that spans many decades, from the disappearance of his mother when he is about three, to his middle age years. Through dialogue and information he gains from his older sister Maeve, the three servants, and other characters, he also fills in periods from before his birth, from the history of the Dutch House to the beginning years of his parents’ marriage.
As a writer, I’m quite interested in why a novelist chooses a particular point of view to tell a story—how does the choice impact characterization, tone, and plot? One of the drawbacks of a first person narrator can be limitations on language, especially if that narrator is a young person. In this case, however, the “present” of the book is when Danny is about 50, so he is quite distanced from the significant early action of the novel which allows for sophisticated vocabulary and use of language without a lack of authenticity.
If done well, a first person narrator can achieve intimacy and connection to the reader in a powerful way. The voice of Danny is warm, funny, and shrewdly observant, easily accessible to the reader. Unfortunately, first person point of view can also result in other characters appearing one-dimensional; after all, they can only be portrayed through the lens of the first person narrator. In The Dutch House I see this as a weakness, especially with Maeve, who is so significant to the story that she needs to be a fully realized character and Patchett falls short of that. We are never sure of Maeve’s real feelings and thoughts since they are all filtered through Danny and we suspect their mutual devotion promotes some protective lack of transparency on both sides. Both Maeve and Danny have been utterly abandoned both physically and emotionally and I would have liked a bit more understanding about how this plays into the life Maeve leads.
One of Patchett’s significant achievements in this book is the ease with which her narrator moves back and forth in time seamlessly, a widening loop that pulls in new information each time to add to the picture. As Danny grows older he learns about his parents and Maeve’s early years through a variety of sources and we get to hear him processing how a new nugget adds to his understanding of his childhood. This provides mild propulsion that keeps the pace going.
Ornate and odd, the house itself is beautifully realized. Its relevance varies from character to character, and it is worthy of each one’s relationship to it. What becomes of the house in the end is just as satisfying, even when we are left with questions about many of the characters.