In Patchett's 'The Dutch House,' Siblings Reckon With Profound Loss
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What could have led a mother with two young children to suddenly abandon her family without explanation? And how can those two siblings reckon with that profound loss and maybe find forgiveness years and decades later? Those are questions embedded in the new novel by Ann Patchett titled "The Dutch House." Her many other acclaimed novels include "Bel Canto," "State Of Wonder" and "Commonwealth." And Ann Patchett joins me now from Nashville where she lives.
Ann, welcome to the program.
ANN PATCHETT: Hi, good morning.
BLOCK: I want to talk about the house itself, the Dutch house built by a Dutch family, the VanHoebeek family from 1922. It's a mansion, right? There's a ballroom on the third floor. The dining room ceiling, you describe, is more in keeping with Versailles than eastern Pennsylvania - so that gives you a sense. And it is a house that the father in the story, Cyril Conroy, buys for his wife, Elna, as a surprise. And it turns out that she hates it. And it becomes, in some way, the reason that she leaves her family behind. And her kids find out that she has moved to India. And it's a great mystery to them throughout much of the book, why she did that.
PATCHETT: Right. Cyril and Elna are poor Irish immigrants. They live in Brooklyn. And after the end of the Second World War, Cyril makes a real estate deal, and he makes another and another. And Cyril jumps from being very poor to very rich without his wife knowing it. He keeps it all a secret. And when he finally has amassed a great deal of money, he buys this house for her. But her identity is really lodged with the poor. And she cannot bear to be in this house. It drives her out of her mind.
BLOCK: And you're telling us things that the kids in the story, when they are children - Danny, who was 3 when the mother left, and Maeve, who was 10 - that they really don't know the answer to. At one point, Danny, when he's 12, gets up the nerve to ask his father why did she leave. And all he tells them is everybody's got a burden in life. And this is yours. She's gone. You have to live with that. But he really - he really can't live with that. He is filled with some degree of rage well into adulthood.
PATCHETT: He is. A central thing in the book is that Danny and Maeve have a very different reaction to the loss of their mother.
PATCHETT: For Danny, it's anger. And for Maeve, it's longing. And really Danny had a mother. Danny had Maeve. And so Danny is angry. But Danny is not longing for his mother.
BLOCK: That question of forgiveness that I alluded to earlier and what we can let go of, what we can forgive is a really tricky thing for - at least for Danny. I'm not sure - not so much for Maeve but for Danny. That's a real hurdle for him, as it is for many of us.
PATCHETT: Yeah, I think that that is - it becomes over the course of the book a very central theme. Can you come to peace with what happened to you in your childhood? Because really Danny and Maeve, they have a very hard life for a while. And then they're fine. I mean, they grow up, and they are happy, successful adults. And the only real problem in their life is they can't stop gnawing on the injustice of their childhood.
BLOCK: The notion of family secrets and the disruption of a blended family was also a theme of your last novel, "Commonwealth." And I wonder if there's something in that that you are especially drawn to.
PATCHETT: I just think it takes me sometimes several books to work through something. This all definitely started with my novel "Run." And then in "Commonwealth," the thing that I loved, the scenes that I loved to write the most were the scenes between a step-brother and his step-sister. And I thought, oh, when I write my next book, I really just want to write a book that's all about a brother and a sister. And hopefully now I can put this whole sibling thing to rest for a while because it's been three books. And that's enough.
BLOCK: You think you're done.
PATCHETT: It's true, though. It really does. I mean, I'll get on something. There's always just a through line in that sort of braids all the books together. And one thing will drop away. But then there'll be something else that I'll pick up. For example, in "The Dutch House," it's the first time I've written in first person since my second novel, which was published in 1994, "Taft." And I really enjoyed it. And I found it really hard. And I know now the next book that I write will be in first person because I haven't quite plumbed it. You know, I haven't solved all the problems that I want to solve for myself yet.
BLOCK: I'm curious when you're finding a thread in one book that you know you want to explore in another, are you - do you have post-it notes? Do you write them down? Do you just keep them in the back of your brain and you know you're going to come back to it? How do you refresh yourself on that?
PATCHETT: I keep everything in my head...
PATCHETT: ...Which - I'm 55. I keep thinking, well, that's probably going to stop soon.
PATCHETT: I'm going to start writing things on post-it notes. But I find when I am putting a book together in my head - and I really do put the whole book together before I start. I know how it's going to end. I know what's going to happen.
PATCHETT: But I have to keep it very fluid when I'm thinking about it. And I'll be thinking about it for a year or a year and a half. And I will forget things. But I always think, well, that's the part that wasn't working. If it's something that I'm focusing on, coming back to again and again in my mind, that's really how I find the story.
BLOCK: So if you map it out ahead of time with a story like this one that is weaving back and forth in time, is that all fully baked when you start writing or does - did those pieces fall into place later? OK, I'm going to shift the timeframe here and we're going to go forward 30 years and now back, back a decade or so.
PATCHETT: It's like this.
PATCHETT: I'm in Nashville, and I'm going to come to see you in D.C. And I'm going to drive. And I know that somewhere along the way I'll stop and spend the night. But I don't know where because I'll stop when I get tired. I don't know when I'll get gas. I don't know where I'll stop to eat. I don't know what I'll eat. But I know where I'm starting. I know when I'm going. I know how long it's going to take me. I know why I'm going.
So there are tons of details about writing the novel that I don't know. There's a throughline throughout the book of Danny and Maeve going and sitting in the car in front of the Dutch house as they get older and reminiscing about the past. And I didn't know what they were going to say in all those scenes. And I didn't know at what moment in their lives those scenes would fall. But I knew that they were always going to be together, getting in the car, driving over there, parking and talking about what had happened when they were kids.
BLOCK: That's Ann Patchett. Her new novel is "The Dutch House." Ann Patchett, thanks so much.
PATCHETT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF PARAMORE SONG, “AIN'T IT FUN”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.