The Dutch House, a new novel by Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder), features a distinctive 1920s mansion that becomes the obsession of siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, who can’t go home again. There’s also an avaricious stepmother, and a number of references to Philadelphia and its suburbs.
Patchett’s appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia Tuesday is sold out, but the writer will be returning to the setting of The Dutch House Wednesday morning in an appearance at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park that’s sponsored by the Open Book Bookstore.
In a phone interview on Friday before her book tour kicked off Monday at her own bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Patchett talked about her inspiration for the obsessed-about house, how politics played a part in the story, and how close Jenkintown — not Elkins Park — came to being the home of the Dutch House.
Patchett’s novel was released this week by HarperCollins. This is an edited and condensed transcript of our talk.
Your books have a strong sense of place wherever they’re set, whether it’s the Amazon in “State of Wonder,” an embassy in a South American country you don’t quite identify in “Bel Canto,” or Virginia in “Commonwealth.” Not that the Philly 'burbs aren’t terribly exotic, but how did you come to choose Elkins Park for “The Dutch House”?
I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville].
And so I would spend holidays and weekends in Wyncote, Elkins Park, Jenkintown — all those little towns sort of run together for me. I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.
Americans move, on average, 11.7 times over the course of a lifetime. So while most of us don’t lose our childhood homes quite the way your characters do, many of us can’t exactly go home again. Did you think you were channeling a more universal longing in Maeve and Danny’s obsession with the Dutch House?
I think that their longing [is different]. Yes, it is a fantastic house. But it is also that they were very rich, and then very poor. The house represents their parents, it represents a happier time, it represents their childhood. Although we don’t get to stay in our childhood home, we usually are not banished.
Was there any particular house that inspired this one? Because some of the descriptions feel very specific — I could see the dining room ceiling, for instance — but it also felt as if you’d left room for people to imagine some idealized place.
Bingo. That’s exactly right. Because I believe everyone has in their mind some house that they thought was the dreamiest house in the world. Maybe you lived there. Maybe you went in it once on a tour. Maybe you just drove by it.
What I wanted to do was provide a handful of very specific details that I would kind of hammer on throughout the book. But then most of it is left up to you. People keep saying to me, “Oh, the house is so vivid.” And I’m like, 'Yeah, well, that’s you, not me."
I think it was the mentions of all the glass that made me think it might exist. Because it sounded like a lot of glass for a typical mansion of that era.
Did you ever see a Tilda Swinton movie called I Am Love? It was an Italian movie. Anyway, that house had this great glass front. And there is also a very grand house in Nashville that has that great glass front, which I always think is so beautiful and strange. The last thing in the world I would want is a glass front door. But I’m so glad other people have them.
There are writers who, after several books, make me think I know what to expect. You tend to be more surprising. Is there a through line I’m missing?
There are a couple. A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society, which actually doesn’t happen in The Dutch House. But that was true of all of my previous books. I write a lot about wealth and poverty. I write a lot about class. And I write a lot about race, although not in this book. I think that for every writer, there are just certain things that obsess you, and you keep coming back.
This book was born out of the Trump election in a lot of ways. People keep saying to me, “You don’t write political books,” and I think, wow, I feel like I do. But [there’s] this feeling of there would be nothing in the world better than to be superrich, to be a Kardashian, to be a Trump.
And probably to a certain extent, that’s always been true, but it feels so true now. And so I really wanted to write a book about somebody who doesn’t want to be rich. And somebody who has money and loses it, and somebody who has money and walks away from it.
Danny is your narrator. Are there challenges — or advantages — in telling a story from a male point of view?
Both. It depends on the man. I hadn’t written a first-person book since 1994 [Taft]. I forgot how limiting it is. When I only have one person’s point of view, I cannot know what’s going on in the minds of the other characters. Whereas normally that is exactly what I know.
Danny was a very easy character because he is smart and charming and hardworking, and affable and easy and funny, and utterly oblivious to the fact that he has been carried along through his life on the shoulders of the women who surround him.
And remarkably enough, I have met several men like this in my life, and I was able to use some of my anger [laughs].
Most of us were brought up on stories of wicked stepmothers and mistreated orphans. What’s the appeal, do you think?
I have to say my stepmother is one of my favorite people. She’s been in my life since I was 5 and I just love her more than anyone. So I don’t come at the wicked stepmother from that perspective.
Not now, but certainly early on in my relationship with my husband, I had such fears that I somehow wasn’t going to do right by his children. I never thought that I was going to be wicked, or wreck their lives, but I really wanted to do right by them. I realize that autobiographical fiction can also be dealing with the things that you’re afraid of. So there’s my stepmother story.
You’re speaking in Elkins Park on Wednesday. Is there anything you’re hoping to be asked?
“My friends, the Buchsbaum family, who are named in the book — the Buchsbaums live across the street from the Dutch House — they’re all going to be there. If somebody raises their hand, and says, “Why did you put this here? How did you know that they would go to Bishop McDevitt?,” it’s the Buchsbaums. Just direct your questions to them.
They’re three sisters and a mother and I was forever calling them and saying, “Now, where’s Danny in grade school? What train would they take?” Originally the book was set in Jenkintown [where parts do take place] and when I finished it, Erica said, “No, no, no. Move them to Elkins Park.”
Reading and Conversation with Author Ann Patchett
When: 9:30-11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25
Where: Congregation Keneseth Israel, 8339 Old York Rd., Elkins Park
Tickets: $30 (includes signed book)