Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I can’t quite put my finger on what I found so engaging about Ann Patchett’s latest novel. But once into the story (around the second paragraph), it soon became the book I wanted to drop everything for and sit and read.

The Dutch House is told over several decades from the point of view of Danny Conroy, the son of Cyril, a property developer, and his missing mother. It’s the missing mother that’s a key part of the story, the woman who abandoned her family when Danny was three, his sister Maeve ten, to go to India and help the poor.

Maeve becomes ill with diabetes when her mother leaves and nearly dies, and the children are raised by their housekeeper and cook. These two kindly sisters help fill the gaps, until Cyril marries again and brings to the Dutch house a gold-digging blonde and her two young daughters. It’s hard to know if Andrea loves Cyril, but she certainly loves the house – a large glass monstrosity filled with ornate furniture and portraits in oil that were left behind by the VanHoebeeks, a family blighted by tragedy who made their fortune in tobacco.

Andrea isn’t the step-mother any child would want – there’s a hint of Cinderella here – so it’s lucky that Maeve is about old enough to take over Danny’s parenting when their father suddenly dies. The novel follows their relationship over the years, their bitterness over Andrea and her stealthy theft of their inheritance, and Maeve’s plot to cream off the only thing their father left them: an education fund. Too bad Danny doesn’t really want to be a doctor. Glimpses of their feelings about events from the past are often recounted in scenes outside the Dutch house in Maeve’s car at night – the two of them smoking and staring, waiting for Andrea to appear, though she never does.

What makes the book so entertaining is Danny’s narrative. I was reminded of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) with the laid-back, intimacy of the storytelling. But Danny is a complex and interesting character, charming in many ways, but with a cruel kind of indifference as well. You can tell he’s been messed up by his parenting, but he and Maeve, the mother/sister he adores, gradually come to terms with the past when several key events take place.

And that’s really all it is. One of those ‘happy families are all alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ kind of novels. It’s told with the present and past artfully woven together and this makes it compelling. It isn’t a big story, filled with nail-biting moments of high drama or sweeping events around people caught up in history. But there’s a heap of heart here and some big ideas about what it is to be a parent, a son, a family; about money and goodness; about memory and love. All the important things, revealed in a simple story about a Philadelphia family. I loved it. A five out of five read from me.

Some Hot New Books to Look Out For

If your reading appetite is a little jaded, try these new books by authors who are masters of their craft.

Kate Atkinson has a new Jackson Brodie novel just out, nine years after last one – something I never thought I’d see. In Big Sky, ‘old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ according to the blurb and yes, I imagine they do because when she isn’t writing crime fiction, Atkinson has made a name for herself as a master of literary fiction, winning a host of literary awards. So she’s not going to be the author who pumps out a couple of page-turners a year just to keep her Jackson Brodie fans happy. The reason they’re so good is that they’re written by a literary author, and not just any literary author. Atkinson is the master of the interesting sentence, which melds into the interesting paragraph, and from then into the surprisingly good chapter and you know where this is heading. So yes, I’ll be happy to get my hands on. Very happy.

We all remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon’s breakout novel about a boy on the autism spectrum who sees something suspicious next door. It was a brilliant piece of characterisation, laced with humour and insight. There have been a few books since, but The Porpoise has whetted my curiosity in particular as it is a reworking of the Shakespearean story of Pericles, one of the least known late plays, so quite a new direction for this author. There’s a missing child, pirates, shifts from present day to ancient times with elements of fantasy. So never a dull moment, I should imagine.

I loved Anna Hope’s previous novel, The Ballroom – an original story around two marginalised characters who find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution and who unexpectedly fall in love. It’s 1911, and people have been talking about eugenics and sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, although in England at least, it didn’t quite come to that, fortunately. Hope’s new book, Expectation is a contemporary novel about friendship – in particular, about two women who at the outset have youth, energy and high hopes for the future. Ten years on, they are still struggling to have a meaningful life. Maybe this isn’t the most original of premises, but I shall be eager to see what Hope does with it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is about the family of a Philadelphia property magnate, particularly his two estranged children told over five decades. Once wealthy, the brother and sister are left to fend for themselves – something of an evil step-mother scenario here – and the bond between the two will either save or ruin them further. Since Commonwealth and State of Wonder, Patchett is on my must-read list. She writes such amazing characters and gripping, suspenseful storylines, so I can’t wait for this one which has a September release date.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith would seem to have some of the same key ingredients as his stunning 2011 book, Bright and Distant Shores. The new book takes us to Fort Lee, New Jersey and the beginnings of cinema in the US as well as Paris – City of light – plus the Belgian battlefields of World War I. History and personal obsessions collide in this sweeping drama. Smith is a consistently good historical novelist and this is sure to be a worthy addition to the pile on my bedside table.

 

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:

C S Forester’s Hornblower books

When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time.  Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”

Book Review: Anyone for Seconds?

9781784297985Anyone for Seconds? is a follow-up book to Laurie Graham’s first novel about TV chef, Lizzie Partridge. Perfect Meringues came out twenty years ago, so it’s been a long wait, but worth it as Lizzie is a heap of fun.

As the story begins, Lizzie is feeling like she’s on the scrap-heap. Her former boyfriend Tom, such a nice chap, seems to have made domestic arrangements elsewhere and she’s never resurrected her TV career since that on-air food-fight in Perfect Meringues. Now Global magazine has just axed her What’s Cooking? column. It’s the last straw. In a desperate bid to be missed, Lizzie heads for the train station and on a whim lands up at a hotel in Aberystwyth.

It’s November, so the seaside town doesn’t have a lot of sightseers. There is a furry conference on, though, and before her return a week later, Lizzie hooks up with a racoon with connections to her past. Back in Birmingham, it’s as if she never left: her elderly mother still ignores her, obviously preferring her younger brother Philip; she has to make appointments just to talk to her high-flying lawyer daughter, Ellie; there’s a mouse in the kitchen and the bills are piling up.

Some chance encounters and a few random events shake up Lizzie’s life so that by the end of the book there’s a promise of new beginnings. Along the way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone for Seconds? is such a fun read and it reminded me of what I liked so much about Graham’s contemporary fiction. Here’s why you should read it:

  • Lizzie Partridge knows her grub, so there are plenty of interesting food references, if you like that kind of thing. I do.
  • Lizzie is sixty-four. How many heroines do you know who are that age? But she’s terrific in so many ways, which is just as it should be – being sixty-four doesn’t stop her from having a go at romance and taking advantage of new opportunities. Not that this should be surprising. If you read Graham’s Dog Days and Glen Miller Nights you’ll know what I mean.
  • There’s a real feel for the Midlands tone of voice. You can hear the characters speaking without any annoying dropped consonants or quaint expressions. It just seems to happen in your head.
  • Graham is really good at dialogue, which makes the story bounce along. There are numerous phone calls, family dinners, and other verbal to-ings and fro-ings, including a pilot for a TV chat show.
  • Like everything Graham writes, the prose is sparkling, sharp and witty – humour guaranteed.

Four out of five for me; oh, and I wouldn’t pass up a third helping, either.

Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter is the first in a series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella tddDarnell, a solitary forty-something who runs a cleaning company called Clean Slate. Her father, Terry Darnell, a career policeman, had always wanted her to join the force, but a messy divorce and Stella’s resentment that he’d always put his job before his daughter meant that she preferred to do her own thing. She likes things tidy, obsessively so, and being her own boss; Clean Slate is perfect – until Stella’s father dies.

Cleaning out her dad’s house, Stella comes across a file that fascinates her: the case Terry was working on when suddenly struck down by a heart attack. Even though he was retired, Terry couldn’t forget the murder of Kate Rokesmith, strangled in broad daylight while walking with her four-year-old son near the river at Hammersmith Bridge. Her husband Hugh carried the stigma of suspicion for the rest of his life, while little Jonathan was sent to a boarding school to be brought up by strangers. Continue reading “Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson”

Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham

9781408888148If it was in any way possible to cross a novel by John Le Carré with one by Nancy Mitford, it might turn out a bit like this. MI5 and Me is an account of the author’s time working in the typing pool in the British secret service during the 1950s.

Bingham’s father (also the inspiration for Le Carré’s Smiley) was a distant man who didn’t talk about his work at home. When his daughter shows no talent for making anything of her life, he finds her a job at MI5 where he holds a senior position. At the time, the bureau is mostly concerned with communism, spying on what seem to be perfectly harmless people, breaking into their homes and planting bugs in their telephones. As well as creating endless paperwork – hence the typing pool. Continue reading “Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles

The Cazalet Chronicles is a kind of historical saga set in England around the years of World War Two. The great thing about it is that there is such a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, that every time I read it there is more to discover. It follows the Cazalet family of three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their families – particularly daughters Polly, Louise and Clary – who each take up a chunk of the narrative. There’s also the unmarried sister/aunt, Villy, as well as elderly parents which provide a link with the past.  Howard published the Chronicles in the 1990s and they were massively successful, with a follow-up book, All Change, in 2013 about the same characters some years later.

What I really like about it: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

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I used to read Margaret Atwood avidly at one time. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s literary greats, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1987, have found a new readership with its dystopian themes that are oddly resonant today.

But of all her books, it is Lady Oracle that I seem to come back to time and again. It’s heroine, Joan Foster, is a romance writer with a bunch of secrets and a life that regularly gets out of control. When she receives a blackmail threat, Joan reacts true to form by running away. She does this by staging her own death and flees to Italy. The novel pieces together her unhappy childhood; her affair with a Polish count who inspires her to write gothic romances; her marriage to Arthur who seems to be the opposite in so many ways to Paul. Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood”

Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans

 

The Wildflowers coverSometimes you just need an absorbing read that spirits you away to another place and time and connects with the emotions. Harriet Evans’ new book does just that, delving into the family secrets and tragic events that shape the lives of the Wilde family.

Anthony Wilde is the greatest stage actor of his day; his wife Althea has taken a pause from acting to raise her two children, eventually to become a success on television. They are the beautiful couple, with two beautiful children: precocious songbird Cordelia and her sensitive brother Ben(nedict). Every summer they arrive at the Bosky, the house built by Tony’s gambler grandfather, which nestles just above the sand dunes. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans”