Comparative: Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House” – Part 2: Forgiveness

In part two of this comparative, the theme of forgiveness will be discussed.  Ann Patchett has written these two novels, summaries below,[i] to deal with sibling relationships.  What sibling relationship doesn’t have the element of forgiveness woven intricately throughout it?  Of course, this process can be dealt with in different ways, and Ann Patchett recognizes that, but following her characters through that process is the beauty of both books. 

After reading these novels, the reader may question the author’s own experience with siblings and childhood.  I didn’t necessarily think these novels could be autobiographical, but after researching her, I was surprised to find they are.  One could be literally autobiographical – “Commonwealth” – and the other contains what she calls the anti-autobiography – “The Dutch House.” Her explanation of the anti-autobiography[ii] is that a writer can write through her own experiences of what she imagines the opposite of what she would have wanted to be in her life.  For example, the stepmother, Andrea, is representative of her most awful conjuring of what she could be like as an evil stepmother. 

According to multiple sources, her upbringing is most closely reflected[iii] in, “Commonwealth.”  Thankfully, one reporter specifically asked her about this, and she stated, “…my parents got divorced when I was young and my mother married someone who had four children and we moved to the other side of the country — albeit not to Virginia — and I think that being thrown together, being pulled out of a family and put into a family has always been very interesting to me.”[iv] 

Did she write this book in the mirror image of the story within a story written in “Commonwealth,” one may wonder?  Again, she was asked.  She stated, “I certainly drew from things that were much closer to my life. I have stepsiblings, I have a sister, I have a mother, I have two stepfathers, I have a stepmother — all these people who are very close to me and very involved in my life, and they have a place in this book. It’s not a book about them, but definitely I am using information from our lives — so when I created the character of Leo Posen who is the famous, older male author who falls in love with the young woman, I’m kind of simultaneously playing both parts. I am the young woman who’s saying, “here is my story” and I’m the old author who is saying, “I’m going to sell you out and take your story.””[v]

So having admitted to taking on these two roles of the young woman and the old author, does the author need to ask for forgiveness from her own family?  Possibly if it is as close to real life as the Commonwealth novel within the novel was. 

Does she provide the role of forgiveness in families in her own opinion in both “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House”?  To some degree, yes, although in varying ways. In each of these stories, Ann Patchett, seems to fluctuate between the role of forgiveness.

In “Commonwealth,” forgiveness is essential to the reunion between Franny and Albie.  None of the other siblings seem to compare in their level of friendship and strength of sibling bond.  Although the reunion takes place toward the end of the novel it is paramount in the author’s defining of the strength of a sibling bond.   Without forgiveness, the bond would have broken between Albie and Franny. 

On the other hand, in, “The Dutch House,” Maeve and Danny are so entwined throughout their lives that forgiveness doesn’t seem to be as important to the author.  However, once their mother shows up again, forgiveness is needed to bong Maeve and Danny back together. 

In both novels, forgiveness is the answer in the end:

“What family stories belong to us alone? Who in the family can be entrusted with the mismatched fragments of our history? Drawing us through this complex genealogy of guilt and forgiveness, Patchett finally delivers us to a place of healing that seems quietly miraculous, entirely believable.”[vi]

It seems the answer to maintaining and fortifying the sibling bond from “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House” is to find a place of forgiveness with not only your siblings, but also other family members like mothers, fathers, step-parents, and possibly in-laws.  And even when full forgiveness hasn’t been attained yet, the author further notes that the bond will not be betrayed.  The bond of siblings and families contains with it responsibility:  

“As Danny matures, he does a lot of thinking about what he can and can’t opt out of as a son, a husband, and a brother. This line hit me hard: “The point wasn’t whether or not I liked it. The point was it had to be done.” He seems to be saying that when it comes to family, some obligations transcend anger or forgiveness.”[vii]

In the end, both of these books were fantastic studies of family dynamics.  Whether fiction is a favorite of yours, like it is of mine, or non-fiction is more your style, both of these novels have both the intricate story weaving of fiction and the fascinating study of human behavior of non-fiction.

Thanks again for reading.

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


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

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.”  “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

“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.”  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44318414-the-dutch-house

[ii] “I was interviewing Zadie Smith about the idea of writing an autobiographical novel. She said she was writing about the kind of mother she was afraid of being. You can write something very autobiographical that has never happened to you because it’s what you’re afraid of. And I wanted to write about the kind of stepmother that I would be afraid of being.” Interview: Ann Patchett: ‘We’re almost embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange’by

Hannah Beckerman, dated September 21, 2019, available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/21/ann-patchett-interview-the-dutch-house

[iii] Ann Patchett Calls ‘Commonwealth’ Her ‘Autobiographical First Novel’ dated

September 8, 2016, available at:  https://www.npr.org/2016/09/08/493142355/ann-patchett-calls-commonwealth-her-autobiographical-first-novel

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] ‘Commonwealth’: Ann Patchett’s masterful novel of family and family secrets by Ron Charles, dated September 6, 2016, available at:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/commonwealth-ann-patchetts-masterful-novel-of-family-and-family-secrets/2016/09/06/fdc14946-7062-11e6-9705-23e51a2f424d_story.html

[vii] https://lithub.com/ann-patchett-discusses-her-new-novel-the-dutch-house/

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