Each year one novel comes along that stands out from all the rest for its dramatic presentation of some existential truth. Ann Pachett’s novel, “The Dutch House” would be my choice for 2020.
The Dutch House is an amazing novel for a number of reasons. Firstly, it describes the intricate intimacy of a close sister-brother relationship in a deeply authentic manner. The conversations, the reactions, the mutual devotion in times of crisis ring true. There is not a false note in the relationship between Maeve and Danny from beginning to end.
Secondly, it poses a central question over the ideal of “other-centred” love or “agape” love as they tend to call it in the Christian or Catholic tradition. In one sense, the Mother in the story abandons her children in order to escape the Dutch House and she commits to loving the poor and abandoned for the rest of her life as a sort of reparation. Perhaps many religious vocations have been lived out in a similar kind of way.
Thirdly, the novel poses a more fundamental question over all the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence and give our lives a purpose. The wonderful kind and caring Maeve, blames her step-mother, Andrea, for expelling her and her brother from the family home. For the rest of her life, this is the central event that makes sense for her of everything else. Danny shares with her this understanding but without committing himself to it. Danny avoids really committing himself to anything other than his sister as his way of surviving. He does marry Celeste and has two children, May and Kevin, whom he loves and cares for but not in a totally committed manner.
This last question about meaning becomes painfully explicit when Maeve becomes sick and the mother reappears to help to take care of her. Maeve is over the moon as all her old hopes and dreams are returning. Danny is much more circumspect. In a certain sense, what seems to kill Maeve, in the end, is the sudden decision of the Mother to take care of Andrea who descends rapidly into dementia. Danny’s understanding of the reality is somehow closer to the elusive truth than is Maeve’s. It is as if the truth is too painful to contemplate.
This is a powerful novel and it asks a really central question about the stories that we construct to give meaning to our lives. However this question is posed inside the authentic life-giving sibling relationship of Maeve and Danny. This family context grounds the question inside love.