Review 1513: Literary Wives! The Dutch House

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.We would like to welcome a new member, Cynthia of I Love Days, who joins us for the first time today!

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I seldom have been disappointed by Ann Patchett even when I’m not sure the book sounds interesting. The phrase “dark fairy tale” was used on the blurb of The Dutch House, which inclined me not to read the book, as that is not my thing, but I’m glad I did.

Danny and Maeve Conroy live in the Dutch House with their father. The house has this name not because of its style but because a Dutch family lived there. It is an astounding house, glass throughout the first floor and enormous, with a third-floor ballroom.

Danny and Maeve’s mother left when Danny was four. He doesn’t remember her, but Maeve, who is seven years older, wishes she could see her mother again. Living with an aloof father, Cyril, they become dependent upon each other. Still, they are happy in the Dutch House.

At first, they don’t pay much attention to Cyril’s friend, Andrea. She is around for a while then disappears for months, then reappears. They don’t like her, but their father doesn’t seem to like her that much, either. However, they realize later as adults, Andrea wanted the Dutch House, and Andrea gets what she wants. Eventually, their father marries her, and she moves in with her small daughters, Norma and Bright.

When Danny is still in high school, Cyril unexpectedly dies, and the events following his death provide the meat of this novel. Told by jumping backward and forward in time, the story is about how Cyril’s miscalculation in buying the Dutch House for a wife who is appalled by it echoes across three generations of the family. It’s a warm novel about cruelty and kindness, rage and forgiveness. It’s really good.

What does this novel say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I liked this book much more for our purposes in this club than some of the others, because it provides a nuanced and insightful look at marriage, although not necessarily at the individuals who are part of the marriage. Warning that this section contains spoilers, although I have tried to be suggestive with them rather than stating exactly what they are.

Although the primary focus of this novel is on the relationship between Danny and Maeve and how it is affected by the losses of first their mother and then their inheritance, there are three marriages that are secondary but still important to the book. The first is the marriage between Danny and Maeve’s parents, Cyril and Elna, which we don’t understand until the end of the book.

Cyril marries Elna immediately after removing her from a convent and never really understands what she is like. Elna, who is dedicated to serving the poor, thinks she is married to a poor man, while Cyril has been amassing money through building purchases and development. Cyril surprises Elna twice with disastrous results that reveal how little he understands her, once when he buys her the Dutch House, which she finds overwhelming, and once when he decides to get her portrait painted, an activity she will not suffer. Elna leaves the marriage when she finds no role for herself in her own house because of loving servants who won’t allow her to do anything. The purpose of her life is service, so she cannot bear this purposelessness. I don’t think she intends to desert them, but when Maeve develops diabetes from stress after she goes to India, Cyril tells Elna never to return and divorces her.

Cyril is never communicative, but he seemingly shuts down after she leaves, to the point where both his children believe that he doesn’t like children. I think this shows that he loves Elna but is incapable of understanding her. Elna realizes she has made a mistake by going to India but is too embarrassed to return home. I think Cyril believes that the way to cherish her is to shower her with things, when really she needs a voice, a role, and a feeling of being needed.

The next marriage is that of Cyril and Andrea. This marriage is almost always filtered through the perceptions of Danny and Maeve, who dislike Andrea. To their minds, Andrea marries Cyril to get the house, and while that is certainly true, we learn at the end of the book that there was more to it. Why Cyril marries Andrea is more difficult to comprehend, especially when we realize that Cyril believes Andrea married him for the house, too. He doesn’t understand her any better than he understood Elna. That becomes clear when he fails to protect his children’s interests because “Andrea is a good mother.” We can guess that Andrea’s looks, youth, and interest in the house are the attractions, and her sheer force of will results in a marriage that has disastrous results for her stepchildren. It’s hard to force myself to see this marriage from Andrea’s side because of her behavior, though, to her stepchildren. I suspect that, like Celeste does with Maeve, Andrea has blamed all her problems with Cyril on his children.

The final marriage is that of Danny and Celeste. A revealing scene takes place after they have been married for years, when Danny says he sees her clearly for just a second and then stops seeing her. Danny marries her because she’s the least trouble of any women he’s dated, and he continues the family tradition of paying little attention to her. Celeste, for her part, wants to marry a doctor and assumes he will become one because he is in medical school, even though he has no intention of doing so (but doesn’t tell her that, because he’s as communicative with her as Cyril was with everyone). She also is very jealous of Maeve and blames her for everything she doesn’t like about their marriage. Although her objections often seem demanding and irrational, it is clear that Danny is much closer to Maeve than to Celeste, which would be frustrating to any wife.

Again, it’s hard for me to see the situation clearly from her point of view, because although Danny marries her, perhaps like Cyril marries Andrea, out of some weird sort of inertia, the kind that continues along a path even though the path is clearly the wrong one, she is also super self-adapting until they are actually married. And that’s the quality he marries her for, so the change in adaptability seems like a deception. Although he claims to spend a lot of time defending Maeve to Celeste and vice versa, he doesn’t seem to see Celeste’s positive characteristics except in a few situations.

So, what does this novel say about wives? A wife, like anyone else, needs to be seen and understood and needs a purpose that is fulfilling to her. Also, it is clear that for two of the wives, it was easier for them to blame their marital problems on other people than to look more closely at the person they married. So, in this novel, neither the husbands nor the wives truly see each other.

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Review 1502: Wild Decembers

Although the Bugler and Brennan families have been feuding for generations, when Mick Bugler inherits land in the mountains of Western Ireland near the Brennans, he and Joseph Brennan are disposed to be friends. They are, that is, until Bugler goes behind Joseph’s back to lease the field Joseph has leased for the past 15 years. Joseph must take a huge loss on dairy cows that he can’t feed, but that doesn’t seem to faze the wealthy Bugler.

As the situation deteriorates, Bugler keeps getting the best of Joseph, however inadvertently. Joseph’s attitude is egged on by the villagers, who don’t like Bugler. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s sister, Breege, has fallen in love with Bugler, unaware that he’s engaged to a woman back in Australia.

This beautiful, moody novel winds its way to an inevitable sad end. O’Brien’s writing is gorgeous and evocative. This is quite a book.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1490: A Patchwork Planet

Anne Tyler’s books have been around for years, and some of them have been very popular, but for some reason, I never read any until just a couple of years ago. Now, I have read a few and wonder what I was waiting for. Her Baltimore settings and her quirky characters make for an enjoyable time reading.

In A Patchwork Planet, Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see his daughter when he becomes fascinated by an incident. A man goes up and down the platform looking for someone who is going to Philadelphia, but he does not ask scruffy-looking Barnaby. He finally finds a middle-aged woman who agrees to take a package containing her passport to the man’s daughter in the Philadelphia station.

This event awakens in Barnaby both curiosity and a sort of protectiveness toward the woman. He watches her during the trip to see if she opens up the package to make sure it is a passport and not something more sinister or dangerous. She does not. He follows her to see her hand it over.

Barnaby is on the surface a tough, lower-class guy, but we find as we get to know him that he is still rebelling, at 30, against his wealthy, status-conscious parents. He is not ambitious, but he is kind-hearted and loves his job for Rent-a-Back, where he does chores and runs errands for mostly elderly clients. But he is a disappointment to his parents, especially to his mother, who can’t forgive him for incidents in his juvenile delinquent past. This past involved breaking into houses and stealing, but while his friends took liquor and money, Barnaby looked at family albums and stole curios. Unfortunately, he was the only one caught.

Barnaby takes another train trip with the woman, Sophia, and engages her in conversation, during which his friendliness wins her over. She contacts Rent-a-Back to have him help out her aunt. Soon, they begin dating.

Under Sophia’s influence, Barnaby begins to make strides toward growing up: to be more reliable at work, to make sure his daughter gets attention, to pay back his parents. But a crisis comes when Sophia’s aunt accuses him of stealing her nest egg.

A Patchwork Planet isn’t one of Tyler’s better known books, but I really enjoyed it, principally because of Barnaby’s engaging personality. This book is lots of fun.

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Review 1429: The Old Man’s Birthday

I’ve only read two books by Richmal Crompton, but she seems to be interested in studying the individual members of large families. In The Old Man’s Birthday, she focuses this interest around Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday.

Matthew has led an exciting and sometimes disreputable life, but he married an extremely conventional woman and now lives in a village stifled by class consciousness and respectability concerns. To this birthday party, he has insisted on inviting his grandson Stephen, who is living with a married woman and has been cast off by most of the rest of the family. Part of Matthew’s motivation is a perverse desire to shock these family members, but when he meets Stephen’s partner, Beatrice, he is also reminded of a girl he loved when he was young.

This novel is about how the introduction of a single person into a group can change dynamics that seem fairly set. You may feel that a multitude of difficult situations are resolved too easily, but still, this is an enjoyable and touching novel. I read it for Classics Club and was glad I did.

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Review 1428: The Children’s Book

I have an inconsistent reaction to Byatt. I find her novels either completely absorbing, as I did Possession, or perplexing, as I did A Whistling Woman. The very long novel, The Children’s Book, nevertheless falls into the first category.

Byatt’s novel takes on the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods, a time when, she says, adults seemed to be trying to prolong childhood, when, for example, Peter Pan made its appearance. Fittingly then, a major character is Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s tales. She has many children, and aside from her authorly output, she writes a continuing story for each one of them. It’s her oldest son, Tom’s, misfortune that she confuses fiction with reality.

The novel begins when, on a visit to a museum with his mother, Tom notices a ragged boy and follows him to find he is living in a closet in the museum. This boy is Philip Warren, a worker in a pottery factory who has run away because he wants to make pottery, not feed fires and do other mundane tasks. Major Prosper Cain, the museum keeper Olive is visiting to consult, thinks he may be able to find a place for Philip, and Philip ends up working at Prospect House for the brilliant but disturbed potter Benedict Fludd.

But first we have the Wellwood’s elaborate Midsummer play, where we meet all of the important characters of the novel. The Wellwood’s guests are artists, anarchists, socialists, fellow Fabianists, and even a banker in the person of Basil Wellwood, the host Humphry’s brother. Of course, other guests are these people’s children, who eventually become important characters in their own right.

The novel covers the time from 1895 to the end of World War I, although the war is covered only briefly. Over this time period, Byatt not only tells us the stories of her many characters but also checks in to events in the lives of actual figures of the time, for example, Oscar Wilde, Emma Pankhurst, H. G. Wells, and Rupert Brooke.

This novel is interesting both on an intimate level, as the children discover their parents’ secrets and have their own, and on the broader, more ambitious level of a portrait of the age. There are casualties in this novel, and it is at times very dark, the way Olive likes her stories.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1302: Crow Lake

Cover for Crow LakeBest of Ten!
Kate Morrison grew up in a farming community in far northern Ontario. She is reticent about her personal life, which frustrates the man in her life, Daniel Crane. Both are zoologists, and Kate can track her interest all the way back to the times she spent as a young girl watching insects and other wildlife in the ponds near her home with her older brother, Matt.

Kate finds it difficult to discuss her family, mostly because of her estrangement from that beloved brother. Crow Lake relates the events that led up to that estrangement from the time her parents died.

When Kate is seven, both her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. When their relatives plan to split up the four children, Luke, at 18 the oldest, decides to give up his scholarship to a teaching college to raise the two girls, Kate and Bo, aged one. He intends that Matt, the real intellect in the family, will go to the college the next year.

This sacrifice on Luke’s part makes Matt angry. Still, the biggest struggle is that the family get by at all, despite the help of the neighbors. Although their father had a good income, he gave most of his money away to struggling family members.

Aside from the troubles in the Morrison household, there are hints of tragic events at the neighboring Pye farm. These events will eventually affect the Morrisons in unexpected ways.

A visit back to the family to celebrate the birthday of Matt’s son, Simon, sends Kate’s thoughts repeatedly back to the events of her seventh and eighth years. In some ways, she is forced to face facts that she’s been avoiding.

Crow Lake is truly the kind of book that creates a world for its readers to explore. It is loaded with atmosphere and tension as Lawson explores the origins of family resentments and feelings pushed firmly below ground. This is a powerful book, completely absorbing. I was sorry for it to end.

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Day 1284: Hot Milk

Cover for Hot MilkSofia is an anthropology graduate student who has given up her job and her room in a storage cupboard to care for her mother, Rose, as she seeks medical help at a clinic in Spain. Rose has a myriad of symptoms, but no one has been able to diagnose a problem. Mostly, she is concerned about her legs. She can’t walk, at least when she doesn’t want to. She can’t feel anything, except when she does. She complains constantly, and nothing is ever right.

Sofia is unhappy with her life—her unfinished dissertation, her job as a barrista, the cubbyhole she lives in, her subservience to her mother. Her father left them when she was five and despite being wealthy, seems to feel no responsibility for them, even in the days when they could barely afford to eat. He has made a religious conversion and now has a young wife and baby daughter.

Sofia is dabbling in an affair with a German girl, Ingrid, from Berlin, but they seem to be at cross purposes.

This novel is intelligent and sometimes almost hallucinogenic as it explores Sofia’s attempts to wake up and take responsibility for herself. At times, I found it a little confusing and its incidents unlikely but mostly I was engaged in Sofia’s journey.

This is another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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