Ahhhhhh! Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is so good. Like wrap yourself in a blanket and sit in a cozy chair and don’t get out for several hours because everything is absorbing and so well written. It’s the writing that is excellent without showing off that it’s excellent. And a plot that keeps you totally hooked without big bangs or wildly suspenseful moments – just a deep and absorbing care for character.
Okay, you know me, I’m a sucker for character, and this book is that. It follows Danny and Maeve throughout their lives from the traumatic departure of their mother in their early years through their subsequent experience with their step-mother, with partners, with children, with one another. I want to say so much more about what happens in their life, but then I really want you to read it, so I’m going to restrain myself and say it follows their lives with all the ups and downs (acknowledging the horrible cliche of that description but moving on).
It does foreshadowing so well.
And setting, too! An anchoring point along the way is the Dutch House itself: the extravagant mansion their father bought and that – purportedly – drove their mother away. The symbol of their lost childhood, what was stolen from their family, of unearned extravagance and the cost of desire.
Like I really, really liked it folks. The kind of enjoyment where I am legitimately sorry the book has ended, I’d have liked to have known Danny and Maeve IRL so I could keep checking in with them. Alas. I’ll have to live with hearing what you think of this one, because promise me you’ll read it…
The only thing I remember from first year English is a lecture that argued that all creative writing (whether poetry or prose) is about the urge by authors to create something which will outlast them. That every poem or story is, in the end, a valiant gesture toward immortality. And that readers should read with an eye to the way the author intentionally and accidentally imbues their work with this impulse; that is, that the discerning reader will always be able to find evidence of the author’s vanity, of their arrogance in thinking their work will endure. At the time I found the argument moving and persuasive. Since then I think back on it more as an example of excellent teaching, it was a well paced lecture with convincing examples and analysis. Which isn’t to say I now thinking writing isn’t about immortality, just that I haven’t had cause to declare an allegiance in the great What is Writing For debate of humanity. Continue reading
I haven’t read Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s (most?) famous novel. I probably should because everything I’ve read by her provokes some kind of… reaction in me. Commonwealth was no exception. Continue reading
Here’s how I think it happened:
Ann Patchett read Conrad’s *Heart of Darkness* and thought, “hey – there’s something interesting going on here: snakes make neat metaphors!” And she entirely missed the bits about colonialism.
So she set *State of Wonder* in the present day Amazon and made it about the quest for a pharmaceutical way to prolong fertility. The premise sounds so rich and so fruitful (kind of like the jungle?!) with all kinds of ethical questions about whether fertility ought to be extended, about the exploitation of the environment and indigenous cultures for the benefit of consumption and about the relationship between science and nature. Not to mention the usual colonial questions that *Heart of Darkness* invites.
But what the reader gets is a mystery plot with a well written setting and a jumble of thematic questions that don’t come out anywhere close to coherent. With the hodgepodge of symbols and the patchwork and the wavering attempt at taking on moral questions it reads as a mess. And annoying mess for the lost potential.