When Suburbia meets the Gothic and Postmodernism in Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

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This house resembles the description of the “Dutch House”, especially its huge windows at the bottom of the house.

I’ve been interested in reading The Dutch House ever since it was released, but for one reason or another have kept putting it on the back burner.  Part of the issue, I think, is that I wasn’t really clear what the book was supposed to be about.   

I’ve read enough family sagas in this lifetime, so I have to be convinced that there is reason to read another. 

I found the novel engaging and, while well written, not difficult to read.  I think this is the first of Ann Patchett’s books I’ve read, and I have to say, as a jaded reader, I knew from the beginning that I was giving my time to an author who knows her art and her craft.   

Believe me, there are a lot of “bigger” writers out there who aren’t as good.

 What is The Dutch House about?

I can see why copywriters might struggle a little bit with describing this book because it’s hard to do so without giving away too much.  The best I can say is that while I enjoyed reading this book, my first reaction after finishing it is that I initially felt that the “third act”, or in this case, Part 3 of the book, had let me down a bit based on the expectations that Patchett sets up through the rest of the novel. 

After sleeping on it, however (I finished this book in the evening), I realized that the conclusion of the book is absolutely the right ending for this book based on its OTHER subtext. 

So I don’t ruin the book for you, suffice to say that there are two sensibilities in this book: the Gothic and the postmodern. 

The Gothic Story

The Gothic is rooted in the early 19th century, which is alluded to when Maeve tells her soon-to-be stepsisters to ask her soon to be stepsisters if they are interested in one of the Henry James novels on her bedside table, perhaps The Turn of the Screw?

Some of the Gothic elements of the story include the focus on the siblings who have lost their mother, a self serving stepmother, stepsisters…evil stepsisters? we wonder…and that house. That mysterious house.

The Postmodern Story

In postmodern literature, there is no good and no bad…no evil, for sure, and life doesn’t make any sense.

Postmodern literature emerged after the Second World War, the events of which deprived many people of the more orderly world views they may have had.  Although the events of The Dutch House span decades, the Gothic bent of the book leaves the reader feeling only a tenuous connection to the postwar years, but one of the few historical events the plot is clearly tethered to is the father’s war work, which has started the young family in tiny, one bedroom base quarters at the end of the war. 

Throughout the book, you wonder why, exactly, these people are so weird. You actually wonder how they can be so weird and be so successful, but then again, that is probably one of the themes of the postwar years. FINALLY, there was no war nor a Depression, so everyone should be just fine, right? As long as the dad was supporting the family and the mother was having one? Everyone would be happy, right? Especially if they get to live in the nicest house in town.


If you loved The Dutch House, and want to read similar books, try this reading list.

Is The Dutch House a good book club pick?

Most definitely! The novel is suspenseful enough to keep readers turning the pages, well written enough for the book snobs (including myself), and meaty enough to discuss. There are historical implications as the book is set in the “baby boomer” period, and there are also clear literary references to dig into. Personally, I think fairy tales are always interesting, and The Turn of the Screw is a weird book (in a good way) that isn’t too long for people to read if they have the interest.

Just be careful about the direction the discussion could take as the family issues might be painful or difficult for some people.

If you are reading The Dutch House with your book club or are interested in reading more background for yourself, try our Book Club Guide here!

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