Thursday, September 26, 2019

Every home has a story - a blog post that's sort of about The Dutch House (event on October 22, 7 pm, at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center)

I finished Ann Patchett's latest novel, The Dutch House several months ago, having been giving an advance copy, but I still can't stop thinking about it. Perhaps it's because it's so good; perhaps it's because we are cohosting an event with her on October 22 (more here). At the center of the story is a relationship between an older sister and a younger brother, a respite from reading one feuding-sisters story after another. A younger brother - now that is something I can relate to, especially one named Danny*.

One of the crazy things about reading The Dutch House is that several Boswellian readers had a story to tell about the place they grew up. Jane and Anne and I swapped tales of how the family got there, why they left, and what happened to the place afterwards. Here is mine.


My father grew up in an apartment in the Bronx, my mother in a series of apartments in Queens and sometimes Brooklyn. In those days, there was actually more supply than demand for housing in New York (can you believe it?) so they’d get a free month of rent with a year’s lease, and they’d move every few years. My mother’s father worked a series of factory jobs, several of which, to my knowledge, involved mattresses.

My parents married after my father returned from World War II and shared an apartment with another couple. They wound up finding this house in Queens that they loved and put a deposit down. The only problem was that the developer lost all his money gambling and sold off the land, including the land where my parents’ house was going to go. The builder’s father wound up finishing up the houses that were being built and in order not to lose their deposit, they wound up building a house where the buyer fell through. So no fireplace, no larger bathroom, but at least a house. $8000, I was told.

My father would tell me these stories as we took walk after walk. We both loved to walk. He’d point to the house that looked like the one that got away. He showed me the lot around the corner where we were supposed to live.

I know when he built the garage. I know the story about him remortgaging the property because the family garment business was failing. I also know that somehow this led to a fracture the family. My dad stopped talking to most of his relatives just after I was born. I only knew one of his cousins, who was also our dentist. Maybe that’s why they kept in touch. He was a good dentist!

My father loved his house so much. He didn’t always make the best decisions – what do you think of artificial turf covering your porch? – but he obsessively cared for the place, keeping up the yard and flower garden, which as he grew older, got slowly replaced with vegetable plots. So. Many. Cucumbers.

I don’t know how my mom felt about the house, but I knew how she felt about moving. And she had moved so much growing up that I think she held on fast to the property. After my dad passed away, my mom lived there for four more years. She paid folks to keep the place up. But my sister in Massachusetts was the closest relative and eventually even she knew that the best thing for everyone was to be closer to one of her kids. And she probably needed to stop driving.

The house was sold. There was an estate sale. My sister drove away with my mom while I stayed behind with the crew, cleaning the place out. On the last night, I slept on the floor. I’d never before seen it empty. In the morning as I left, I discarded my pillow and blanket and headed for the bus, which would take me to another bus, which would take me to the airport.

The house was in a single-family home in a still-popular neighborhood with a good school district that was zoned for four families. There were tear downs all around the neighborhood. Even before my dad died, it was happening, and both my parents liked to show me the changes every time I visited. Our house, post-sale, would not escape the wrecking ball. In a few months, it was gone.

When my mom died, I decided I wanted to see it in person. I asked my sisters whether they wanted to go, and they said no, couldn’t handle it. I rented a car and parked across the street. The new place had a lot of brick, shiny metallic trim, a bulky blocky thing with a lot of driveway and no backyard for vegetables. It certainly did not have ceramic toilets in shades of seafoam green, peach, and burgundy**. It wasn't the nicest replacement home in the neighborhood, but it wasn't the worst either, sort of just like our house.

The house on one side of our old home had just been torn down and was being replaced. The house on the other side of them looked much like it did in 1965, when I was a young child. I couldn’t tell if there still was a pear tree in their lot. I made my peace with change and the passing of time, and then I drove away.

Another memory. It’s after my grandmother’s funeral, and my mother and her three brothers are in the living room arguing like they were all 12 years old. Arguing about details, who was slighted, who came out ahead. The brothers, who were younger, lived longer in one neighborhood and had happier memories of their home. Mom, the oldest, was already working by the time they stopped moving, dreaming of that house she’d one day live in. Same family, very different stories. Rinse and repeat.

I was chatting with a sister about some of these stories, and she said, no, I think you’ve got some of these details wrong. Maybe a lot of them. For a start, they definitely didn’t pay $8000 for that house. In my head, I was convinced I was right. To be fair, I am wrong enough about many things when it comes to memory. Sometimes it turns out I am right. But often I am not, and as I get older, I am wrong more often.


Ann Patchett is at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts on Tuesday, October 22, 7 pm, cosponsored by Boswell and Books & Company. Tickets are $33 and include admission, all taxes and fees, and a copy of The Dutch House. I can tell you right now that this is going to be one amazing evening for a book that is already one of the best-reviewed novels of 2019. Here are just a few links.

Ellen Gray talks to Ann Patchett for the Philadelphia Inquirer. A local convinced Patchett to move the house from the Philadelphia burb of Jenkintown to Elkins Park.

Martha Southgates reviews The Dutch House on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, noting how Hansel and Gretel are baked into the story. As she notes, "It takes guts to write a fairy tale these days."

Belinda Luscombe profiles Patchett in Time: "I wrote this book, got all the way to the end, read it, hated it, threw it away and started over. And I mean completely. What I realized in having it bomb so completely is that you cannot write a sympathetic character who leaves her children for ethical reasons. There is definitely a different standard for men and women, and I wanted to take that on."

*I was renamed Danny by my first grade teacher and kept the name until I took my first job after college, where my boss renamed me again. But that's another story.

**Really! I was quite fond of the burgundy one.

No comments: