The cost of forgiveness
by Keith Taylor
From the October, 2019 issue
Ann Patchett writes good stories, the kind that catch us and keep us interested, that build to emotional climaxes and invariably are moving, even when we guess the ending that might be coming. She creates characters who feel real and whom we care about as well as any novelist working. But there is something unique in each of Patchett's novels--an idea or image or event--that never quite recedes to the background and that shapes the characters and their actions. In Bel Canto, her most famous novel, beautiful music underlaid all the conflict and relationships. Even readers who knew little or nothing about opera found themselves interested in the intricacies of fine singing. State of Wonder, from earlier in this decade, layered science and the discovery of new medicines under its character studies and intrigue.
Patchett's new novel, The Dutch House, features, as you might guess, a house. Immigrant merchants built the place after they made a fortune distributing cigarettes during World War I. The house is large and ornate, bordering on ostentatious, but art nouveau ornamentation keeps it from being tacky. As Danny Conroy, the son of a seemingly heartless developer and narrator of the book, says as he approaches the house after thirty years away, "I had known ... that the world was full of bigger houses, grander and more ridiculous houses, but none were so beautiful." Most, but not all, of the Conroys, its current residents, who made their money in New York real estate after the next world war, are oppressed by the place.
But the overriding theme of The Dutch House is forgiveness, particularly the kind that is necessary within families. Danny and his sister, Maeve, were abandoned by their mother, who could not live in the new affluence her husband's success created and the house he chose for his family. Instead, she traveled the world dedicating her life to the poor, while leaving her own children to the ministrations of a troubled stepmother. Though that stepmother trope seems a bit too obvious, she too becomes part of what must be forgiven. And then that trauma of forgiveness centers in the house, becoming an overriding presence, one that each character must learn to live with, even when they cannot accept it.
Patchett reads at Rackham Auditorium October 14.
[Originally published in October, 2019.]
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