She Reads & Writes

Women • Fiction • Life

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside…” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House was one of my favorite listens in 2019. I felt this book and it will stick with me. Ann Patchett‘s lyrical writing and Tom Hanks’ confident narration is a powerful duo. I could see the characters and the house clearly. I could feel what the characters were going through. If you’ve considered giving audiobooks a try, this may be a good one to start with since the skill of the narrator makes a huge difference in your listening experience.

In the novel, two siblings named Maeve and Danny, are incredibly close due to their mother leaving home when they are 10 and 3, respectively. Maeve does her best to fill in as a mother and take care of her little brother Danny, while the father is more focused on his work than his children.

Their mother’s abandonment is felt more by Maeve than Danny, since Danny was so young when his mother left he doesn’t even remember the woman.

“I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen, the ship in the waves of the grandfather clock rocking the minutes away.” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

There comes a point when the father remarries and in classic wicked stepmother fashion, the father’s new wife is trouble and kicks Maeve and Danny out of their home after their father dies unexpectedly.

The two characters spend years wallowing in their hatred of their stepmother, regularly parking outside of the Dutch House and putting salt in their own wounds as they rehash the past and despise the woman.

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside…” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

It’s a classic case of psychological projection, where the two are putting all of their unhappy feelings onto one woman, their stepmother, rather than processing their real pain. Sure, she wasn’t the best, but she truly wasn’t the worst either.

The novel asks if we can ever see the past clearly.

The novel asks if we can ever see the past clearly. If it’s even possible to see the past as it actually was. At one point Maeve claims she does, but Danny knows better:

“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.” – Danny in The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I’m always fascinated with the passing of time and our memories. How we build things up in our minds, make our own mythologies that suit us best. Two people can go through the exact same thing and remember it so, so differently. We can even remember the same memory wildly differently throughout the stages of our lives.

This book had me thinking a lot on how important it is to process our pain and learn from our past, but to not make an idol of it either. There’s simply no point in dwelling on things, but to ignore our own experiences causes trouble as well. Like most parts of being human, it’s tricky business and calls for balance. Easier said than done, but a worthwhile goal.

This book had me thinking a lot on how important it is to process our pain and learn from our past, but to not make an idol of it either.

Have you read this or any other novel by Ann Patchett? Thoughts? I read Bel Canto years ago and definitely plan to read more of her works now!


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