On a wall in my apartment is a cast iron sign. Carved through it is a row of boxwood hedges, and painted on it, on both sides, are a number and a word. Seven-one-one is the number. Boxwood is the word, the English translation of my last name. The sign hung outside my grandparents’ home on Meetinghouse Road in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
I mention this because the Buchsbaums of Elkins Park are mentioned several times in The Dutch House (Harper) the wonderful new novel by Ann Patchett.
But that’s not why I read it, not why I loved it, and not why I’m reviewing it.
I read it because I love the way Ann Patchett writes. I devoured Bel Canto years ago, hanging on every word. With The Dutch House, I was hooked from paragraph one, completely taken with Maeve and Danny Conroy, a sister and brother whose lives in the house are upended twice, once by the departure of their mother, and again by their eviction at the hands of their stepmother. In mere chapters, Maeve and Danny go from normal to moneyed to cut off.
The Dutch House follows their lives from that point forward. Maeve’s college years and professional life as an accountant. Danny’s medical school and later work in real estate, and his marriage and kids. Through it all, Patchett weaves sentences together into a shimmering tapestry of detail. Longings and regrets. Resentments and reunions. Fortunes made and stolen.
Like a plumb, The Dutch House centers the story, which always returns to the house just as Maeve and Danny frequently do, sitting outside it at night, in her car. To the people connected with it, the house is part mansion and part mausoleum. When Maeve and Danny lived in it, the house was home. Once they’re evicted, it becomes a curious touchstone, the place they have in common, and the place where their childhoods came to an abrupt end.
The Dutch House isn’t a complex novel. In fact, it’s a rather straightforward chronicle of the family inside it, their lives as they meander through the years, steered by time and choices. Patchett’s details are perfect, and she uses language that makes each character come blazingly alive. It’s clear she loves the house and all the magic it holds, but the novel focuses on the people who encounter it and love it, from family to those who work for them. Their feelings for it ring true. In my life I’ve lived in many houses, nd had homes. My parents and my sisters always thought of them as part of the family, not just structures where we kept our stuff. Like the Dutch House, they’re cherished memory boxes. Like the characters in The Dutch House, we hold the houses, and the houses hold us.
I never saw 711 Meetinghouse Road, but I do remember my father and mother speaking of it fondly, with love. As far as I know, it’s still there, but the sign that hung out front, which my grandfather commissioned to name the house and mark its address, is with me. It’s a reminder of where my dad’s family came from, and without it we wouldn’t be where we are, all of us, now. ◊