Putting books on hold at the library has its benefits until they all land at once and then you have to read them whether you’re in the mood to or not. I don’t know about you but I like the process of finishing a book, sitting quietly for a moment before putting it on the “Read” pile for the thrift store/charity shop or the little library down the road, and then savouring the moment where you can stand up, head towards the bookcase and scan the shelves for the book that calls to you at that particular moment. I really do love this.
However, at the moment, this has been robbed from me by my eagerness with holds at the library which means that I have been compelled to read the books I have reserved and not only that but I have to read them in a particular order so that I don’t incur fines. It has been hell.
I exaggerate, of course. Reading books? Hell? Not in this house! Except for maybe my 10 year old. Anyway, this digression was all a preamble to my review of my latest book, The Dutch House, which was continuing my foray in to the recommendations of Rita Leganski, of which A Good Man is Hard to Find, As I Lay Here Dying, Dubliners and Benjamin Button were all mentioned.
It tells the story of a super close sibling relationship between Danny and Maeve, who live in The Dutch House. They refer to it as this throughout the book as it was once the home of Mr and Mrs VanHoebeek, Dutch tobacconists who built this splendid building in acres of land and had servants and parties and the high life. Their portraits adorn the wall still when Maeve’s father buys it as it came with all the furnishings that the VanHoebeeks had acquired during their lives.
However, Maeve and Danny’s mother, Elna is never comfortable in the house and when Danny is still young, she leaves, ostensibly for India to help the poor and the children are left wondering what has happened to her. This is heightened when Danny and Maeve’s father remarries and they gain a stepmother called Andrea and two sisters called Norma and Bright.
Andrea’s arrival heralds a dramatic change in the children’s lives and it is her appearance for the first time at The Dutch House which starts the book, the facts of the children’s upbringing and what happens to them after their father dies being told in flashbacks by Danny, our narrator.
It is true that Andrea is the wicked stepmother or, at least, an uncaring one, and the book starts off well with the tensions that Danny and Maeve experience in Andrea’s presence being the focus of the book. But once their father dies and Danny has to move in with Maeve, as Andrea does not see that she has any obligation to take care of him at all. Andrea is the only obstacle to Danny and Maeve’s occupation of The Dutch House as their relationship with their step sisters is loving and harmonious. Maeve and Danny are nice children and Maeve, in particular, is a caring and kind older sibling. But this matters not to Andrea.
Once Danny leaves, we no longer visit The Dutch House, except when Maeve and Danny pull up outside it to sit, smoke and reminisce on their life there and what happens within those walls now they no longer inhabit them.
Danny and Maeve continue with their lives, always with the shadow of the house over their lives and by association, their treatment by Andrea. There is also the question of where Elna is as they believe that she is dead. However, with the renewed contact with their old nanny, Fluffy, Fluffy confirms that Elna is still alive and the eternal yearning for a mother especially for Maeve whose memories of her are still vivid becomes something that needs to be reconciled.
I’m not going to reveal what happens but I will say that the book ends well with a reasonably satisfying conclusion. However, I expected more from this story, probably from the tense way that it started which just didn’t continue throughout its remainder. There are tensions in Danny’s relationship with his wife, Celeste who resents the closeness with Maeve and Maeve’s ill health, which sometimes rears its head as she is diabetic, provided other moments of interest but if I am honest, I found a lot of the book was pedestrian and whilst it presents a complete picture of a close relationship between brother and sister, brought together by the circumstances of their childhood, I have to say that in places, I found it a little less than enthralling.
It’s well-written and easy to read with good characterisation. I especially liked the characters of Sandy and Jocelyn, the maids who knew the children’s mother before she left and continue to have a strong tie to Danny and Maeve, even after many years. Relationships are well realised and in terms of examining a relationship grown from mutual sibling affection and a sense of duty in the face of mercenary guardianship, it achieves much. A fair read, nothing compelling or racy but not bad either.
But that was it. Just alright where I was expecting much. Maybe that was the problem: my expectations were just too high. And the added pressure of the library deadline and an ever growing pile of books with ever shortening due dates.
One thing I will say is that it is a beautiful cover, quite the most captivating cover of any of the books that I have read so far in 2021. I would love that swallow wallpaper.