“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, August 19 to discuss The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. One of Patchett’s strengths is her ability to use setting creatively. Her settings push and pull characters, or they transcend into characters themselves. They are more than the where and when; the setting of each novel is as powerful as the plot, capable of influencing character behavior, affecting dialogue and tone, and shaping reader expectations, beliefs, and biases. Imagine reading Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Magician’s Assistant, or even Truth and Beauty in another setting. These are not stories that could have happened just anywhere, and The Dutch House is no different. In this novel, the titular house (and buildings and architecture at large) takes on a new dimension — it is plot, setting, and character, all three — and also the passion, compulsion, addiction, and dysfunction that drives so much of the book.

As much as Patchett brings the house to life, the characters who live inside are the heart of the story. As one reader put it, “Ann Patchett tells the story of people. You don’t have to try to figure out what will happen, you just flow along.” Like a fairy tale, this book includes housekeepers and cooks, an absent mother, distant father, and evil stepmother, plus a pair of stepsisters. These are the spokes of life around Danny and Maeve, who, though seven years apart in age, align themselves to each other before all else. Together, they navigate what it means to be rich and also peculiar, and then poor, the vindictive blood in their hearts keeping them hotly alive. While their wounds may come from abandonment by their mother or dismissiveness by their stepmother, they park in front of the Dutch House and look at it, all the way through, and believe they are seeing clearly what they have lost. 

We talked about the house, and after making a long list of descriptors, we concluded that the house was like two sides of a coin: super light, almost crystalline, and super dark, shadowy and villainous. The novel is circular, with Danny following in his father’s footsteps, repeating history in both his successes and failures. There is a feeling of coming full circle as Maeve’s portrait, an imitation of the grand Dutch VanHoebeek portraits, finds new life in a newer generation. In the push and pull of competition between Danny and his stepsisters, readers feel as if they are watching certain actions around and around again. The circular nature of the story, layered over the house, light and dark, feels like night and day. Death and life. The house is as complicated as any human character in the book; it is beloved by some and hated by others, a source of secrets, and yet the only place in the world that feels truly known. It is a symbol of greed, but also innocence. It’s all jumbled together, like a snowball rolled down a hill, growing larger and larger.

We talked extensively about Elna and how we judged her. Some were baffled by her character, failing to see any love for Cyril, her husband, or her own children. When it came to her leaving the children, some cut her slack because the children were so cared for, even without her. Others had trouble forgiving her. Reflecting on our conversation of Elna, compared to our conversation of Andrea, it’s fascinating how when a mother leaves her family, we feel the need to discuss if she was right or wrong. We feel the need to form an opinion, and then also tease apart what the author’s opinion might be (for the record, we concluded that Patchett portrays Elna’s actions very objectively). We connected Elna’s storyline to Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. 

But Andrea, who spends much more time on the page, and makes decisions that affect the children with more frequency, if not with more force, is not the object of our scrutiny. It would be really interesting to consider if any of Andrea’s decisions — perhaps what she did to Maeve involving the window seat, for example — might have come close to the effect Elna had on her children. Who’s to say that all of Andrea’s slights and wounds might not add up to Elna’s life changing decision? After all, in Maeve and Danny’s minds, Andrea is the evil stepmother. All we had to say about Andrea was that for one reader, she was the favorite character (a “love to hate” character). 

This is the only Ann Patchett novel written in first person, and we discussed the experience of relying on Danny, who declares himself early on, “asleep to the world.” We see the influence of parents in this story (good, bad, or indifferent) but we do not get inside their heads. This might have been frustrating at times, but clearly created the perfect balance of mystery and omission to keep us hooked as readers. 

While this novel was unanimously enjoyed (our hour-long discussion featured almost no complaints), almost every person in attendance had other Patchett novels they had loved, as well as Patchett novels they had hated. Some loved Run, others hated Run (and so on, with almost every book she’d written). It stands to reason — while Patchett’s signature as an author is consistent, each book has its own flavor. If you read an Ann Patchett book and you’re not sure about it, try another! You just may fall in love. You could also try the audiobook version of The Dutch House, which is not simply “read,” but rather “performed” by none other than Tom Hanks. Indeed, those who listened to the book on audio raved about it, saying that Hanks really disappears into the story. He truly becomes Danny. Sound off in the comments: what’s your favorite (and least favorite) Ann Patchett novel?  

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré on Thursday, September 16. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Links:

‘Ann Patchett: “We’re so embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange”’ by Hannah Beckerman for The Guardian

Books Mentioned: 

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Taft by Ann Patchett

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

Run by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

What Now? by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

“Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they merely change form.”

Brown Baggers book club met in person at the Central Library on Thursday, July 15, from 12-1 pm to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The subtitle, “a woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback,” is a little ironic hovering above an image of Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver — the actors chosen to play Robyn and Rick in the movie adaptation. No, the journey is not completely solo; but, it’s solo enough to include plenty of zingers from Davidson’s chatty, whizzing inner monologue. As one reader put it, “I think she’s nuts, but that’s just me.” 

Readers revealed that they found Davidson to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator; in her, we found quick, eccentric storytelling (and for a “solo trek” saga, plenty of nearly unbelievable sidekicks, enemies, and friends). While the book was said by our group to be vivid, reading it was like chasing a butterfly — darting from one thing to the next. We found the writing compelling, but some wanted Davidson to pick a lane, and we discussed how the book would have read differently had it come from a scientific/academic angle. One person noted the book was more like a slideshow than a movie (it would have been interesting to discuss how (or if) the movie smoothed over any choppiness from the book, but no one had seen the movie). Ultimately, some of the most memorable moments were the genre-bending, slightly wacko, purely human, diary-like snapshots: Davidson walking around naked in the desert, dissolving into angst over her relationship with National Geographic, or rounding up her long-suffering friends for what felt like another fool’s errand. The Kirkus review of the book puts it well: “An unusual work–not as travel or adventure but for the total, personal experience, met head on.”

Another cover image of Tracks is a photo of Robyn riding a camel, which again, is a little ironic, given that the gist of her trek was to walk alongside the camels, who were used to haul about 1,500 pounds of supplies. Camels, though, fascinated our readers. This was not a book about camels per se, but the little details were a chance for us novices to learn a lot about camel life. Their feisty, sometimes violent tendencies, their maternal instincts, and their habits of grazing and wandering all night were all named as fascinating new discoveries for the group. Australia, known for its invasive species, was also a bit of a character itself. We didn’t talk much about the landscape or dialect/jargon used, but those components certainly drove the book into territory of its own. We did discuss how the time period (1970s) also contributed greatly to the book, because it was a time when people questioned norms and the status quo. Anything was possible. 

Gender was also a point of discussion for us. Davidson was the first ever recipient of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980, and for the 24 years that it was awarded, she was one of only two women to receive the award. Travel writing is known to be dominated by men, so it’s interesting to see here a book that fits the bill but also breaks the mold. As one reader noted, unlike many travelogues, in which male voices attempt to be supernatural survivalists, here we have Davidson “‘fessing up” about the ways in which she was helped. From friends who took her into a prop plane to search for lost camels, to an Aboriginal guide, Davidson’s trip was not perfectly executed or perfectly packaged. At the moment, it might have felt a little weird to read from a narrator who seemed to have self-esteem issues, was self-indulgent, and had a temper. We don’t expect that kind of emotional or mental rawness from a soaring travel adventure story. Reflecting back, it’s a gripping twist of storytelling, as the embodiment of Australian culture (macho, rugged Outback) was a woman. One reader described Robyn like this: “She was the type of character who would have done anything after being dared at a party.” It says a lot that Davidson, a real person, was so easily thought of as a “character” by our readers. Sometimes you read a true story, but the person’s journey is so different from your own, that it almost feels unreal. The truth really is stranger than fiction. 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Anne Patchett’s The Dutch House on Thursday, August 19, 12-1 pm, at the Central Library. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Books Mentioned:

Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Solo Journey Across the Outback by Rick Smolan

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert 

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides 

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard 

Movies Mentioned:

Rabbit Proof Fence (2003)

Tracks (2013)

Links:

‘The Camel Lady’ painting by Jean Inyalanka Burke – Warakurna history paintings at National Museum Australia

Nomadic cultures, journeys, and coming home: A conversation between Robyn Davidson and Dr. Mike Smith – National Museum Australia

Robyn Davidson reflects on 40 years since “Tracks” – Hilary Harper, Life Matters for ABC

Robyn Davidson is a nomad – interview by Anna Krien for DumboFeather

Excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition at the Australian Museum

“The language of love was the same as the language of medicine.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This book was nominated by multiple members and did not disappoint! 

Much of our discussion focused on style. This quote from “The Guardian” sums up the structure (a retelling of life and ancestry) well: the book is structured “as a surgeon might structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up.” One reader described a feeling of “comfort” knowing who would survive, thanks to the foreshadowing and the protagonist’s narrative relationship with the reader, but others wished for more surprise or suspense. Many felt the book was very organic as it developed rich character profiles and also managed to detail the colonial history of Ethiopia, medical advances around the world, and poverty and wealth. We felt Verghese did phenomenal work unwrapping these layers, and were largely impressed by his command of language. This is a book that, every fifty pages or so, strikes a careful reader into the compulsion to go grab a notebook and write that profound sentence down…

Cutting for Stone features medical procedures, oddities, illnesses, emergencies — and no fluff. Deep, scathing accounts, with plenty of blood, guts, and bodily fluids. Some readers were excited by the medical scenes, while others found them a slog. Along those lines, there was the complaint that the novel was clearly a novel (“novelized” as one person put it). Too much drama, too many crises. Odd, overly convenient connections, an overwhelming number of adventures. For one of our re-readers, the characters and writing were still compelling the second time through, but the “surroundings” of the novel were a bit much. At times, Verghese missed the sweet spot between realism and intrigue. 

We had to discuss the title, which works on numerous levels. One line in the Hippocratic Oath reads: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” [kidney stones] We believe this novel participates in a larger discussion of medicine: balancing between the worlds of specialists and generalists. We found numerous examples of characters stepping “out of line” and “cutting for stone” in this manner. Ghosh, the general practitioner, must perform an intestinal “untwisting” procedure (the first surgical necessity after Stone, the surgeon, flees); this can be compared to Stone attempting to deliver the twin boys (as Hema, the trained obstetrician, was not available). One went well, one went horribly wrong. The title is at once a nod to the plea to not do what you are unqualified to do, and the description of characters, self-aggrandizing and pompous, doing exactly that. It is also a challenge to the traditional oath, in that it begs the question of who is truly a “specialist in this art.” For example, traditionally parents grow and learn — “specialize” — as their children are born into the world; being a participant in the creation of new life grants them the benefit of the doubt. In the case of chosen/adoptive families there is no blood-level authority to parent, and yet in this book, the adoptive parents are incredibly doting (so much so that some readers found it almost saccharine). “Cutting” also refers to the numerous surgeons found in the novel and “Stone” also refers to the last name shared by most of the characters. We imagine the men in the novel performing the surgical act for themselves — and also for one another. Interesting to read the novel in that light — to witness actions driven by the desire to do something for someone else. 

Speaking of doting families, readers noted that the characters’ ethnicity played a role in shaping the story. According to one reader, Indian culture is traditionally very dedicated to the children of the family. If the family in this story was not Indian, maybe the story would have been different. We also noted that the story is able to make reference to, manipulate, and contribute to, histories such as arranged marriages and sexual mutilation. We found the book to dance along the edge of traditional culture and modern globalization. 

The Brown Baggers will meet in person at Central library on Thursday, July 15 at noon to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details. 

Want read alikes? Try these:

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss (about conjoined twins)