THE DUTCH HOUSE (Harper), Ann Patchett’s masterful eighth novel, is a fierce, intimate, and unstoppably readable saga of family life. It begins in the late 1940s, when Cyril Conroy surprises his wife, Elna, with a glass mansion in the posh Philadelphia neighborhood of Elkins Park. Elna, who’d contemplated becoming a nun before their marriage, despises the finery and eventually leaves Cyril in order to care for the poor in India à la Mother Teresa. This means abandoning her daughter, Maeve, who’s 10 going on 30, and her son, Danny, who’s 3. (“But when you think about saints,” a family friend later reflects, “I don’t imagine any of them made their families happy.”) Decades later, Danny describes the aftermath of the abandonment this way: “Our childhood was a fire.” As if in a dark fairy tale, the siblings are essentially left to fend for themselves, and when their distracted father meets and marries someone new—a wicked stepmother for the ages—their orphandom is complete. Yet that’s where the relationship between Maeve and Danny deepens, with Maeve valiantly, and entertainingly, stepping in to parent her brother.
As in Patchett’s Run (2007) and Commonwealth (2016), The Dutch House weaves together, with clear-eyed compassion and intuitive, witty honesty, the ties that keep us whole and hold us back. The years go by, and the two siblings struggle not to let the past define th