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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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].
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.
“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.”
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)