Illustrations by Maria Alconada Brooks. Photos by Heidi Ross.
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Speak with Ann Patchett, and you may feel a sense of calm. Her tone is mellowing, assured, somehow anchoring. The way she communicates, with steadiness and a wallop of warmth, suggests that the novelist leads an awfully peaceful life — or else she’s an awfully good actress.
This is not to say that Patchett, 55, is some overly cheery, see-no-evil optimist. During a recent interview about her new book, “The Dutch House,” which came out last week, she told me, perhaps half-jokingly: “I’m looking forward to dying. I think that I’m going to get out at just the right time. I think that the world and I are growing farther apart.” We’d been talking about the ubiquity of smartphones, and how masses of people are glued to their devices, endlessly texting, talking, Instagramming and tweeting. You won’t see her among their ranks.
Patchett’s world is uncluttered, devoid of the digital noise that dominates much of modern life. She has no social media. She doesn’t text. She uses a flip phone but doesn’t know how to check the voicemail. She rarely reads anything on the Internet.
“It’s weird,” she said. “It’s quiet over here.”
She has published eight novels, including her latest, and issued forth extensive nonfiction work. The simplicity of her lifestyle, reminiscent of a previous, less technologically driven era, helps make her output possible. And in a way, “The Dutch House” itself represents a return to an earlier time. Described by numerous reviewers as a “fairy tale,” the novel revolves around the sprawling titular mansion, a three-story stunner in the Philadelphia suburbs where our narrator, Danny, grows up in the 1950s with his aloof father and brilliant older sister, Maeve. A callous stepmother, Andrea, and her two children also factor heavily into the story.
In much the same way that Nick Carraway offers us a lens through which to view Jay Gatsby, through Danny’s eyes we admire Maeve, the real star of this literary show. Full of wit and acuity, Maeve also has the wherewithal to raise her younger brother after their mother leaves. “She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed,” Danny tells us.
And it is Maeve, fresh out of college, who expertly takes the reins after a tragedy and betrayal leave the pair practically penniless. In formulating the book, Patchett wanted to tell a story “of people getting thrown out of their home,” she said, tracking the cycle of “children who were raised in a very wealthy family then being very poor.”
Loss is at the center of the novel — of legacy, of family, of things unsaid or unasked — with the greatest loss ostensibly being their divestment of the Dutch House, abruptly wrested from Maeve and Danny. Throughout the book, which spans several decades, the siblings can often be found sitting in a car parked across the street from the mansion. During a moment of agitation with his sister, Danny thinks, “There was no extra time in those days and I didn’t want to spend the little of it I had sitting in front of the goddamn house, but that’s where we wound up: like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns.”
Readers see the entirety of this story from Danny’s point of view, which marks another return for Patchett, to first person, a style she hadn’t adopted since her first two novels — “The Patron Saint of Liars” and “Taft” — which were published in the ’90s.
“The thing about first-person narration is you have to really ask yourself if this is a person who would write a story about herself, or himself,” Patchett said, adding, “Danny is the kind of person who would tell his story.” Maeve? “Not the kind of person who would tell her story.”
Is there any specific reason, I asked, she chose a male narrator?
“Yeah, there is,” Patchett replied, “and it is:
She sees it all the time. (We see it in Danny.) A man can seem “so lovely, so smart and charming” while “the women who are holding him up and making his life possible” can seem spiteful, arrogant and “in competition with one another, because it is the way the man has set it up, that everybody’s trying to do everything for him and sort of stepping on one another.” When people ask if it was hard to write in the voice of a man, she says: “No, it was a snap, because I know the guy well. And I feel like his circumstance is a circumstance that’s repeated in every direction in my life.”
Through Danny, Patchett delivers a surprise bit of profanity you won’t find in her other works. She penned “The Dutch House” after the death of her father, who read all her writing. (“As a writer, I am first and foremost my father’s daughter,” she notes in a 2016 essay. “I didn’t operate out of a desire to please him so much as I did a desire to not offend him, and the truth is that the constraints did me little harm.”) His passing granted her permission to use a particular c-word that rhymes with punt. And bunt. And hunt.
She “never, ever” would have used that four-letter word if her dad were alive, she said. “It’s not a word I ever use anyway.” That swear, she added, in this novel, is “so hysterical. Every time I was proofing or working on the book and I would hit that word in the scene it would crack me up, because it’s so wildly out of context.”
Wherever you are, whoever you are, may you one day have the opportunity to hear Ann Patchett’s lilting laugh; it’s wickedly good. I should know. I heard hers a lot, and she mine — perhaps more than my employer would encourage — during an extended tangent about the c-word.
But when it comes to writing, she is serious. She has no rituals — “I got rid of them a long time ago,” she said, after a brief but potent addiction to desktop Solitaire — and no strict routines. “No particular kind of tea, no particular kind of cup, no particular time of day, no particular place,” and she thinks that’s very good.
And, it seems, she doesn’t want to be stretched thin.
“I don’t have mental dexterity, genuinely. I mean it’s why I don’t have kids. I made a decision about what I could do but I never, ever think, ‘Oh, I could do all of that,’” she said. “And I do what I like. I write these books. I’ve got my husband. I’ve got my dog. I’ve got my friends. I’ve got the bookstore. That’s enough. There is no more room on my dance card.”
“The Dutch House” is the October Lily Lit Club pick. Follow along with us on Instagram.