“The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Dutch House
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

After reading a mystery, a feel-good story, and a psychological thriller, this reviewer felt overjoyed to sink my teeth into literary fiction once again.  I can and do appreciate some contemporary reads, but this mythical novel felt like coming home, especially since the story explores the meaning of home itself.  It is not a spoiler to point out that this is a family-saga disguised as a dark fairy tale revolving around a house. The author breathes as much life into the house as the characters. It is not farfetched to say that the house itself is the main protagonist.

The book begins in1946 when a real estate mogul buys a fully furnished, Gatsby-like mansion, as a surprise for his wife.  Turns out that she hates the house, but his five-year-old daughter loves it.  Their son is born 8 years later.  The narrative jumps around in time through the son’s voice.  When the boy is three-years-old, his mother deserts the family, leaving the siblings devastated.  This is how his older sister becomes his main caretaker.  The bond between them is unwavering, even when the boy is a grown man.  Their closeness puts a strain on his marriage. When the siblings are 12 and 19 years old, their father marries a young widow with two little girls of her own.  The wicked stepmother from Cinderella has arrived. When the older sister visits home during a college break, she discovers that her stepmother has given her bedroom—which is the best room in the house—to her little stepsisters. An unused room in the attic is now her bedroom.

The author does a good job of showing rage through humor throughout the novel.   When the older sister learns about the room change she laughs and says, “It’s just like ‘The Little Princess!’ when the girl (Shirley Temple in the movie version of the book), loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic.” She demonstrates this skill with all of her characters, including the loving and long-suffering nanny, cook and housekeeper. The only small room in the house is the kitchen. As the cook says, “that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants.”

It would be wise to remember that you are reading a fairytale, if not the book will feel unrealistic. Put in the fairytale genre the story is as fascinating as the author’s 2011 novel, “State of Wonder,” which also has a mythical feel.  “House” stayed with me after I finished the book. I deliberately did not read the initial reviews. (I missed the ARC reviewers’ suggested deadline on this one). I came to believe that the book is mostly a coming-of-age story, as well as a reflection on one’s childhood as an adult. The author seems to ask the question, ‘Why do we repeat the same mistakes as our parents?’ In addition, wonders, ‘Why do some of us have childhoods that could have been written by the Brothers Grimm?’ Finally, ‘What one may need to accomplish to change our life story’s ending?’

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Maggie Brown & Others: Stories” by Peter Orner

Maggie Brown

Genre:  Literary Domestic Fiction
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date:  July 2, 2019

A writer friend of mine, Diane Ledet, author of Bookwinked recommended this book to me.  I am grateful for her suggestion since she introduced me to an author who captures the human condition so well in just a few short sentences.  This is the sort of book I love to read. Regarding his 2001 book, “Esther Stories,” the NYT Book Review said that  “Orner doesn’t simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls.”   The same could be said about his latest book, which includes a novella and 44 short stories.  And by short, I mean short.  Many of the stories are around two pages long.   Still, they get under your skin.  All of the stories tend to be melancholy with an emphasis on what it means to be alive.

The opening story, “The Deer,” is one of my favorites in the collection.  A girl watches a deer become stuck in the mud after a mountain lion chases it into a lagoon.  Feeling pinned, she sits down on a log and watches the tide rise, knowing it will eventually be over the deer’s head.   When the water is up the deer’s chest, she finally gets back on her bike and leaves.  She just couldn’t stand to watch anymore. As the reader, I wanted to jump into the pages and rescue the poor creature.  The story’s power comes from the girl’s helplessness in not being able to save the deer.  Most of us have been in that terrible position of watching someone we love suffer and/or die knowing that there is nothing we can do to give them aid. It’s that agony that Orner manages to nail with limited words—very impressive.

The bittersweetness of “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” drew me in immediately. A grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop drives all night in a snowstorm to meet one last time with his former boss, Len, who is now dying of AIDS.  The grad student hopes to write a book about Len because he was “one of the first people to notice something, anything, in me.”  I feel confident that all writers will relate to the student who can’t manage to move his manila folder full of notes into a novel.  Still, Orner brings hope into the story.  The student does manage to write a different novel than the one that he intended to write.  He honors Len’s spirit with no mention of the source of the book’s inspiration.   Without spelling it out, Orner demonstrates to his readers how something awful can transform into something positive, even if it is simply a novel of thankfulness.  

Interestingly the story that is my least favorite is the book’s title story, “Maggie Brown.’’  The short revolves around the narrator’s college girlfriend.  “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport…She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam.”  That line alone perfectly describes the sadness one can feel when they have been forgotten.   My issue is that I didn’t get as obsessed with the characters as I did in the other stories.  Still, it is a very good short.  Maybe, I was simply expecting too much since it is the title story.

My only true criticism with the shorts is that most of them left me so connected to the protagonist that I wished each story was longer.  My wish was granted in the novella of interlinked short stories revolving around the forty-year marriage of Walter and Sarah Kaplan.  The Kaplans are a constantly squabbling Jewish American couple who own a furniture business in Massachusetts. Suddenly I am reading humor and by this time I needed to laugh. The novella can have a melancholy feel, but there are many moments of comic relief that take the edge off.  Orner’s dialogue is similar to the Jewish humor of Philip Roth.   He summarizes life’s annoying and painful moments while mixing it up with zingers.  Walter says, “I dreamed you buried me in the old cemetery out on Fish Road.” Sarah asks, “Fish Road where all the ancient Jews are?”  Walter replies, “You think we’re immune from becoming ancient Jews?”  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is willing to think about their own life because Orner will force you to reflect.  I for one will be seeking out his previous work.

 Purchase this novel on Amazon

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