Comparative: Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House” – Part 1: The Sibling Bond

When I first started reading Ann Patchett’s writing, it came from the buzz surrounding her books, specifically, “State of Wonder.”  I felt like the people I spoke with who had read her books were filled with excitement when they spoke about her.  Without hesitation, the response from a reader of hers is a response of electricity.  I thought, I want to know what her writing is all about. 

I started by reading “State of Wonder,” felt amazed and literally transported to the lands she described ranging from the Amazon river to the woods of Minnesota.  As I usually do, I followed immediately after that with another book by the same author.  This time, I read her highly-acclaimed and made-into-a-movie, the novel, “Bel Canto.”  I felt amazed again, although instead of in a state of wonder in a miraculous way, I felt left in a state of wonder and disbelief.  Either way, Ann Patchett has the ability to deeply affect a reader.  Period.  Her complex story writing may be my favorite of all fiction writers. 

I found after reading “Commonwealth” and most recently finishing “The Dutch House” that the theme of sibling relationships runs through both novels.  I feel that these two books are incredible renderings of family life and struggles, but at the same time paint the complicated picture of love amongst siblings.  Here, I will compare both books’ themes of the sibling bond and forgiveness. 

A short synopsis of “Commonwealth” to start:

“Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how [a chance encounter between the father of the Cousins children and the mother of the Keating children] reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny [the youngest sibling] begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”[i]

And a combined synopsis of “The Dutch House”:

“Two siblings, Maeve and Danny Conroy, bond tightly after their mother leaves home when they’re 10 and 3. Home is the eponymous Dutch House, a 1922 mansion outside Philadelphia that their father, Cyril, a real estate mogul, bought fully furnished in an estate sale as a surprise for his wife in 1946, when Maeve was 5. The house, built by a Dutch couple who made their fortune in cigarettes, is grand, with an ornate dining room ceiling, six bedrooms on the second floor, and a ballroom on the third floor. His wife, Elna, hates it, aesthetically and ethically. After she flees, ostensibly to India to devote herself to the poor, her family suffers, as if “they had all become characters in the worst part of a fairy tale,” Patchett writes.”[ii]

“Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives, they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.”[iii]

The Sibling Bond

In “Commonwealth,” Ann Patchett presents a multitude of familial characters. The family lines and connections are challenging to keep track of, however, never was I challenged to be intrigued and care about the stories of these characters.  The main relationship in terms of sibling bonds that I want to focus on is between Franny and Albie.  This relationship out of all of the sibling relationships and even the death of their brother, Cal, is the one that transcends the missteps, grudges, and failed relationships of all the characters. 

At the very end of the novel, Franny remembers a scene from adolescence when she went out looking for Albie on a cold, snowy night.  Already Albie had fallen into the haze of drug and alcohol abuse as a teenager, but she finds him.  He is under the bushes of the family home and she crawls in to be with him.  She shares the memory at the end when they are reunited as brother and sister, but it colors their relationship and the depth of their sibling bond for the reader making the retrospective of their history all the sadder.  Their shared experiences as unmonitored children formed great bonds of seemingly everlasting love.  However, the reader sees that the bond was severely harmed if not completely broken for years.  The reader already knew that the bond was broken, but this enlightenment from the shared memory makes the depth of that bond deeper and the brokenness of their relationship even sadder.  The redemption of the sibling bond in the end and their shared life as siblings going forward as adults is a testament to the strong formation of that bond. 

What precedes her having this fond memory of her relationship with Albie, is a realization:

“…Maybe his only crime as a child was being one. When Franny sees Albie after many years, she can’t even remember why everyone found him so irritating. “He wasn’t the monster they told him he was,” Ms. Patchett writes. “In fact there wasn’t anything so awful about him. It was only that he was a little kid.””[iv]

There are those of us who have siblings who can relate to the complicated love and feelings shared with siblings, especially through the process of looking back.  There are memories of shared experiences growing up as children fighting to get out of childhood or fighting with each other during childhood that are unshakeable.  We can suppress those fond memories and not so fond memories of our siblings, and even push our siblings away with the busyness of adulthood and our own families, but what this book teaches, is that the bond is unbreakable.  The sibling bond is felt in our hearts and in our own memories throughout our lives.  So even when siblings are irritating or the sibling bond seems to be fragmenting, this story shares the greatest insight – that bond will never break.  Siblings are connected to you forever through heart and mind.   

To compare, in “The Dutch House” the sibling bond grows in the opposite direction to a point almost beyond control.  The sibling relationship between Danny and Maeve is one that they are thrown into because of the abandonment they experience first from their mother, then the death of their father, followed by their expulsion from the namesake, “Dutch House,” by their wicked stepmother, Andrea.  Their relationship is traumatized by each of these events.  But what comes from these traumas is a sibling bond that is seemingly unshakeable.  It almost becomes more of a mother-child bond as Maeve actually supplants herself into a mother role for Danny. 

 “Our willingness to serve each other represents the best of us, according to Patchett, and it is almost as if she wants to take the notion of motherhood and release its power into the commons — what if we were willing to mother one another, mother strangers? But she is also always full of warnings about the self-abnegation it requires, especially of women — and never more clearly than in this new novel.”[v]

Maeve’s choice to mother Danny has its negative consequences.  Maeve’s life becomes dedicated to Danny much in the way a mother dedicates her life to her child, but in this case, as is the case for many of us mothers, she puts her life on hold for the protection and love of her brother, Danny.  She gives up a more flashy education and career to be close to him, but in the end, was that the right choice for her?  The reader is left wondering.

Why does Ann Patchett cross the sibling bond line here in this novel and blur it into a mother-child bond?  She explores motherhood and sisterhood boundaries, but in the end the sibling bond prevails after the return of their mother, Elna.  Her appearance toward the end of the novel resets Danny and Maeve’s relationship in a new dynamic.  Maeve couldn’t be happier that her mother arrived back in her life, and she doesn’t understand how her brother isn’t as happy as she is.   She mothers him back into forgiving their mom and sets him on his way to independence.  Her releasing him from this bondage of their relationship is needed in a strange attribution to their abandonment issues of the past.

Both of these novels present a complicated set of sibling relationships, but what is amazing is that Ann Patchett handles them in opposite ways.  She is able to explore the range of that bond, from a weakened, deteriorated relationship between Franny and Albie to a fortified, almost unhealthily strong bond between Maeve and Danny.  Overall, there is no right or wrong answer on how siblings should behave other than to find a place of common love and if needed, forgiveness.  Next time, I will explore the theme of forgiveness amongst siblings in these two novels.

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


[i] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28214365-commonwealth

[ii] “Motherless Children Make Their Own Family In Ann Patchett’s ‘The Dutch House’” by Heller McCalpin, dated September 19, 2019, available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/762888874/motherless-children-make-their-own-family-in-the-dutch-house

[iii] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44318414-the-dutch-house

[iv] In Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth,’ Knotting and Unknotting the Ties That Bind by Jennifer Senior, dated Sept. 7, 2016, available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/books/review-ann-patchett-commonwealth.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer

[v] In Ann Patchett’s New Novel, a Glass House and a Family With Things to Hide By Parul Sehgal, Published Sept. 21, 2019, Updated Sept. 24, 2019, available at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/21/books/review-dutch-house-ann-patchett.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

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