Monday, November 11, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

For almost all of my reading life, I have tended to prejudge pop novels and pop novelists. Certainly, that prejudice has saved me from reading many bad or so-so novels, but it has also led me to miss some real gems. Today,  I am going to say a few words about two 2019 novels. Although I don’t intend to reveal much of the storylines, I want at least to recommend these books. The first has been on the best seller lists for quite a long time. It is a novel about a house, The Dutch House, and the family who lived there in a period spanning five decades. I have shortchanged Patchett before; it took me several years to get around to reading (and reviewing) her fine novel, Bel Canto and almost as long to read The Magician’s Assistant.

A man who has been poor all of his life suddenly comes into a lot of money, and one of the first things he does is buy a house he thinks to be the grandest he has ever seen. He buys if for his beloved wife, but she is uncomfortable in the house from the beginning and comes soon to hate it. Time and time again, she leaves the house and her two children Danny and Maeve, and  stays away for greater and greater lengths until finally she leaves for good. The two children are inseparable, only comfortable in the world when they are together. Maeve attempts to be the lost parent for her younger brother, after they are forced out of the home when their father dies and leaves his entire estate to his second wife. The characters of the two children are very well fleshed out by Patchett, although their father, Cyril Conroy, is more a shadow than a fully developed character. The one provision Cyril had included in his will for his son Danny was a fund to pay for his education including any graduate program he enters. Clever Maeve devises a plan to keep her brother in school for many years, until he receives a medical degree, thus keeping a least some of their father’s money from the merciless stepmother.  

I did not find this novel to be particularly important as a socio-political statement, but since the time span includes the Viet Nam war and the political turmoil in this country right up to the present, Patchett does provide some insights into the separation of rich and poor and a running commentary on political events. Still, the most important relationship described is that between sister and brother. The scenes between them are touching and very believable and explore what I would call a kind of emotional incest.

The second book, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, is a wonderfully researched book about World War II and the Holocaust. I have been somewhat put off by Hoffman’s inclusion of magic in her early hugely popular novels like Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic, and magic enters this novel as well, but in a way I found much less intrusive. 
In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. 
Hanni’s doctor husband has already been murdered in a riot outside his Jewish hospital when the reader is introduced to the surviving members of the family. Hanni knows she must do something to protect her beautiful 12 year old daughter from the Nazi regime, but how can she protect her? While Hanni is able to prevent a sexual assault on her daughter by a Nazi soldier, she does so only by killing the assailant, and knows that the consequences will be dire.  In a desperate move, Hanni takes her daughter, Lea, to a renowned rabbi pleading with him to help hide her daughter and to get her out of Germany. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, who steps in to save Lea, and she does so by creating a golem. “A golem…may look human, but it has no soul. It is pure and elemental and it has a single goal, to protect. Ettie explains that the incantations must be exactly right, and that if she makes a mistake, it will mean instant death to her. She finally agrees to create the golem in spite of the great risk, but only if Lea buys identification papers and a train ticket for Ettie’s little sister, so that she, too, can escape from Berlin.

The rest of the novel describes the journey of Lea and Ava (the golem) as they escape to France and then through a long series of events that will get them to a place where they can join the French resistance and fight the Nazi occupation.

It is very clear that this book was a labor of love for Alice Hoffman, and in my estimation the most serious of her many successful novels. The bibliography at the back of the book evidences just how through Hoffman’s research was in creating this novel. 

Lea and Ettie’s life paths are entwined from the moment Ettie creates Ava and begins the long journey towards the south of France. There are so many wonderful and believable characters created by Hoffman as Lea and Ava continue their escape and find ways to enter into the fray, and to help oher Jews to escape Nazi rule.

So two hugely popular novels that deserve to be read.

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