The portrait of the girl in the red coat is of Maeve, and this is her story.
We come at this fact obliquely, as the narrator is Danny, her much younger brother.
I love this painting, presented on the cover of the book. I referred back to it many times as I read to bring Maeve into the room with me. She looks a damn good kid, but with a bit of spirit. Sharp. Initially, the painter is brought to the Dutch House to paint Maeve’s mother, who decides she is having none of it. So Maeve stares out at the painter throughout several long sittings, a little bit in love with him, but she keeps to her seat, steady and calm, the still focus of the house while things go on around her.
Things continue to go on around Maeve, and Danny tells us about the family life from when he comes in. He is too young to remember a lot of the early stuff, their mother leaving and returning and leaving again. She leaves for India eventually, on some kind of Mother Theresa mission, seemingly forever. Danny’s memories mostly start with Andrea, who marries their father. Neither the mother (is she dead? Danny supposes this) nor the stepmother, enjoy life in the Dutch House, though to Danny, Maeve and their various housekeepers and carers, it is a fine home.
The Dutch House itself, in Pennsylvania, is one of the stars of the book. Grand on a theatrical scale, three stories tall with a ballroom on the top floor, it has ornate furniture and chandeliers and glass panels front and back so you can see right though the observatory to the garden behind. “Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on.” The house is named for the previous family, who have left all their Dutch furnishings, paintings and delft mantels. There are two life sized portraits of the VanHoebeeks in the drawing room.
It is a house for stories, and the memories of childhood incidents are retold over and over by Danny and Maeve and their erstwhile carers down the years. Often Maeve drives Danny and they sit smoking in her car, across the street from the Dutch House, watching the activity through the big windows, reminiscing.
The story continues through an unhappy family disintegration, stuff happens, Danny and Maeve grow up. But while Danny is telling his story, of his education, marriage and kids (as he slowly turns into his father), what I am hearing is the story of the one thing that props him up, every single hour of every day. His sister Maeve. Whatever falls apart in his life is held together by Maeve. She is fiercely protective, she forfeits her opportunities and dedicates her life to him and yet she does not come across as some self-sacrificing doormat. On the contrary, I thought her love was powerful. She is cool and blithe. There is a feeling that Danny doesn’t understand the half of it, which makes him such a believable narrator. We can read between the lines to see the cost of Maeve’s goodness. Of course Danny adores her.
How many stories are told about a sister by a younger brother? I found this fascinating. We see Maeve entirely though the needs of Danny. It’s insightful. Some readers may disagree that Maeve is the main character. They’ll see the book purely as Danny’s story. All I can say is that’s a shame. They have missed something profound.
This is a story about nostalgia, about recovering what is lost, and about how we often need to mythologise the past to make sense of ourselves. Great read. Get the paperback so you can look at the painting of Maeve on the cover.
PS. After reading The Dutch House I found a lost book that I adored a few years back and always meant to recommend if only I could remember what it was. It’s another Ann Patchett: State of Wonder. If you read The Dutch House and loved it, add State of Wonder to your list.