Finding Home

We began Snotty Literati’s history with an Ann Patchett novel (State of Wonder) in 2012, and we launch 2020 with an Ann Patchett novel. This book (with an amazing painting commissioned specifically for the cover by Noah Saterstrom) is a family epic that centers on a home, the Dutch House: its inhabitants, its history, its eccentricities. But really it’s about the kids thrown out of the Dutch House, Maeve and Danny. As Maeve and Danny grow up, they are constantly reliving and processing their lives as castaways. The ghost that actually haunts them, however, is that of  their mother who walked out on them as children. The Dutch House is symbolic, grand, and way of homing in on their loss.

Jennifer: So before I start, I thought I’d offer up Patchett’s description of the Dutch House, which is hard for me to imagine still. I picture, mostly, a house of glass, a Sleeping Beauty/Disneyland castle in small-town Pennsylvania. Here’s Patchett: 

“Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.”

It’s an historic home built by Pennsylvania Dutch rich people, the Van Hoebeeks.

The book was described by The Guardian as a modern fairytale. I don’t love that. I think the book was more grounded in reality than a fairytale is—despite the lavish home. Lara, what is this book actually about?

Lara: Yeah, I don’t like the modern fairytale reference. It’s a story about the ties that bind and ties that break. Siblings, Danny and Maeve, who we meet when their real estate/property-owner father is courting Andrea to be his new wife. Mom Elna abandoned the family, citing hatred of the Dutch House, to go perform acts of service across the globe. 

“After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there she’d be at the dining room table again, chastened by her absence at first and then slowly warming over time. Andrea, fully warmed, talked about nothing but the house. She was forever going on about some details of the crown molding or speculating as to the exact height of the ceiling, as if the ceiling were entirely new to us.”

Danny is at the start of his teenage years and Maeve is exiting them and living on her own. Andrea becomes a wedge that, when dad Cyril unexpectedly dies, banishes his children from the family, and the Dutch House. She takes over the Dutch House.

Jennifer: Yes, I guess that she is like the evil stepmother. I will say that I thought one of the most amazing parts of the book was when Danny and Maeve as adults meet Andrea for the first time as an old lady. Great writing. I can’t find the quote, but that lovely cover gives way to The Scream by Munch. 

Lara: These seminal moments propel Maeve and Danny into an unbreakable pair, them against the world, working, finishing schools and plotting their futures while sitting in Maeve’s station wagon across the street from their former home—as mesmerized by the house as much as their mother despised it.

I loved it. Every minute of it.

Jennifer: Okay, I loved it too. I did! There’s something—I can’t put my finger on it—mesmerizing about Patchett’s prose: it carries you. And, though I don’t want to dilute the praise that Patchett deserves, I do need to say that Tom Hanks narrates the audiobook perfectly

I think that the book is about mothers! (Intriguingly, Ann Patchett is NOT a mom—and I bet I could work this into some crazy discussion on American Dirt, but I’ll resist.) Maeve and Danny are pulled together the way you said because of their orphaned state, so to speak.

But it’s more too. It’s about the role of the mom. Their mom felt the call to serve the poor, and she followed that call—abandoning her children. How do we measure our callings, our vocations, our service? Should taking care of one’s children always be the priority? What if the “Greater Good” is at stake? Is rushing off to India more noble? Or is this an example of failure?

(Patchett does have one line, maybe, about how men do this all the time—but I like that she doesn’t dwell on it.)

Lara: Yes, it is about mothers. All kinds. How Maeve is a mother to Danny. How Fluffy (their nanny), and Jocelyn and Sandy (housekeepers) mothered Danny and Maeve. How Andrea and Elna are examples of what we would collectively say are “bad moms.”

So, to your and Ann’s points, men leave all the time and it’s no surprise or big deal. But when women do it, they are held to a different standard. It’s an uproar. Is that fair? Admittedly, Elna’s abandonment bothered me more than Cyril’s poor parenting decisions and behaviors. 

Jennifer: True, right? Though we’re women and moms—so it might’ve hit us harder. The book is also about the way various things affect and shape us. Patchett writes the following (I love this line):

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.” 

Also, Patchett contemplates how we shape our histories, consider our pasts: 

“But 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.” 

Who doesn’t make a fetish of their misfortune? 

Lara: A lot of us do. I think Maeve is an expert at this. When Andrea kicks Danny out and he’s forced at 15 to go live with his 22-year-old sister, Maeve starts digging. She reaches out to the family attorney, Gooch, and learns that Cyril set up a trust for Danny and Andrea’s girls to use solely for education. Maeve then pushes Danny to go not just to college, but also to medical school, with the hopes that it will drain funds. Funnily enough, Danny goes into real estate, but operates as a part-time doc to his own kids and those of family friends. He never wanted to be a doctor.

So, let’s talk about Danny and Meave, and Celeste (Danny’s eventual wife).

Jennifer: Well, yes, Danny and Maeve grow up. Interestingly, they are fiercely loyal to each other – and it is the defining relationship of their lives. I felt like Maeve, for whatever reason, never makes herself vulnerable to anyone outside of her immediate circle. She never has a love affair that we hear about. There are no children. There really aren’t any friends! And Danny seems to keep his wife, Celeste, at arm’s length.

Before you address that, let me ask you . . . what do you think about the philosophical questions Patchett is raising about motherhood? Are we mothers first, before anything else? What about her call to serve the poor?

(Side note that you can address or not: I have no info on this, but I felt like this was moving into the realm of the “Catholic novel.” I sensed a religious-awareness here.)

Lara: Are we mothers first? I don’t know. I believe my role as a mother is one facet of who I am. I have always worked (always had to work). At times, work felt like it came first, but he always was the most important. He was my why. As he gets older, my decisions have less of an impact on him. 

As it relates to having a calling . . . well, the reality is that people have callings. Patchett states, and I am paraphrasing here, that Saints are probably pretty miserable to be around when they aren’t serving that calling. 

Maeve’s Catholic faith was important to her. It wasn’t so to Danny. It was, at least in the form of “good works,” important to Elna. Here are three family members practicing (or not practicing) their faith at all ends of the spectrum. That said, I would not call it a Catholic novel, or even a religious novel.

It’s a story about the different ways we form and define family. 

Jennifer: I like that paraphrase. We don’t have to dwell on it, but that was my central interest in this book, that stilted saintliness. The displaced saint. The misguided saint. The wealthy saint. Guilt over wealth. The mother’s guilt over living in the splendor of the Dutch House. She couldn’t cope with her own wealth.

The house is a character, right? What do you think this character does for the novel?

Lara: Patchett’s descriptions of the Dutch House, like the one you quoted above, and many others, had me wanting to go to this fictional house. I was certain it existed. I was certain I could go to Pennsylvania and walk across its wide floors, my fingers grazing the luxurious drapes in the library or ballroom. I wanted to stand on the second floor and look outside to the Linden trees lining the property. 

Jennifer: I agree that I wanted to see it. The whole book is very, very filmic. This should be a movie! The house is like a twist on the haunted house-narrative. 

Back to the kids. What did you think about Danny’s marriage?

Lara: Oh, Danny. I really liked Danny. He was infuriating. At times, he was as selfish as his father; he was also fiercely loyal to Maeve, and I am certain he could never live up to Celeste. Celeste married a doctor, as she often proclaimed. Danny was in property. They built a life, they built a family, and I loved their daughter May and her relationship with her auntie namesake, Maeve.

Better yet, I love the closure May brings to the story. But I can’t say more, or I will give too much away. 

Jennifer: We’re actually holding back on a few spoilers, folks. So take our words for it and read it, or rather listen to it.

Lara; Yes! Definitely listen to it!

Jennifer: On a separate, but related note, what have you been reading? I do want your opinion on a few books. I’ve been playing catch up on a couple books I missed last year. Sally Rooney’s Normal People: I thought it captured the fierceness and weirdness of young love. Some psychotic elements here? I liked it. A tad too much sex. Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here: promising, but meh? Why did he choose a female protagonist because I kinda found that this resulted in a sexually ambiguous or genderless character? Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: loved it. Read it in a heartbeat. 

Lara: I read Normal People several months ago. I thought it was really good, authentic, if not uncomfortable at times. A little voyeuristic feeling. But good. I loved, loved, loved, Nothing to See Here. The audio was excellent. A weird and wonderful story about the female friendship and the complexities that can complicate it when there’s different socioeconomic levels at play. I also thought he did a great job writing from the female perspective. It’s almost as though we read two different books! I also attempted Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, and had to put it down. My book club just finished a highly improbable super twisty, over the top mystery and it was a good escape. 

Next Up!

We will be back in March to talk about Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School. Until then… Happy Reading, Snotties!


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