There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.
Perhaps, if you’re like me, you’ve had the experience of going to a winery. Compared to the rest of the world, in your mind anyway, you have a bit of an unsophisticated palate. You know you like things that taste pleasant, which pretty much translates to sweet regardless of price tag, variety of grape, or tapestry of complicated flavors involved. But here you are, and you’re going to see it through. So you order something that looks nice. The glass is set in front of you with little fanfare and, on the surface, it looks like any other glass of wine. You take a slow sip at first. Honestly, it’s unremarkable to your tastebuds. There’s nothing overtly pleasant about this wine, but it was expensive and it’s wine, so you forge on. You keep sipping, and with each sip you notice something you didn’t notice before. Flavors that whisper on your tongue and a new warmth that spreads through your body, lightening your mood and drawing your mind to introspection. It’s not until you tip back the very last dregs of the glass that the thought occurs, “this is some damn good wine.”
Why am I rambling about wine, you ask? Because this book is that for me. It’s not a pleasant wine. There were times, honestly, I wondered why, exactly, I was reading what I was reading. But the true genius, I believe, of the writing of Anne Patchett is in the subtle creeping of her narrative. This novel is an incredibly intimate character study. I’ve seen some reviews that dub this novel as “a modern fairytale.” I get the reference, certainly. Open scene on a glorious 1920’s Dutch mansion in Philadelphia, a relic complete with the ghostly images of the VanHoebeek family whose portraits bear witness to the tragic dramas of our hero and heroine, Danny and Maeve Conroy. Upon the disappearance of their mother and the untimely demise of their father, Danny and Maeve are cast out by the evil stepmother. In a matter of hours, they are cast from the elegant gilded confines of their mansion onto the street to begin anew. Ok, I’m overdramatizing a bit. They do have one thing left from their father. He left an education trust to be split between Danny and the step-mother’s two daughters.
Much to the delight of Danny’s older sister, Maeve, it’s not required for the trust to be used in equal parts by all three, which means Danny can do as much school as is humanly possible in a bid to potentially empty the trust before the daughters of their nemesis can even think of touching it. It doesn’t matter that Danny has absolutely no desire to go to med school, he WILL be a doctor, at least on paper, for the sole purpose of sticking it to their father’s widow in a slow-burning revenge. What the reader is left with is a comically sad realism. In expert fashion that only a writer with Patchett’s skill can exhibit, we aren’t told what to think about all this. We are shown little by little and layer by layer until everything falls into place. And though this is a slow burning narrative, the effortless flow of her prose ensures that we readers don’t ever really get bored. We don’t grow to love these characters in the same way readers usually love characters, but we do love them. As with members of our own families, we see both sides of them, their affable and admirable side juxtaposed against their apathy and low emotional maturity. We understand them and, consequently, feel for them in a way we otherwise wouldn’t in a less effective narrative. In my case, this is accentuated by the fact that I enjoyed this one on audio, and the first person narration is performed by the incomparable Tom Hanks, whose depiction of Danny was both endearing and authentic.
I think the true power of this story is it causes us to examine our own relationships and resentments. It’s about a reconciliation of the past and present, casting aside the demons that followed us from the past so as to forever alter the course of our lives. It’s about letting go and moving on. In the long run, a house is just a house. A painting is just a painting. The meaning we ascribe to everything that touches us is of our own making. Our resentments and anguish will define us, but we are in control of how those things define us. As with the glass of wine and the good book, will we walk out the other side appreciating the things we gained more than we regret the things that didn’t go our way?
Overall, I give 4 stars to this ultimately moving and lyrical novel.
Pub. date: September 24, 2019 by HarperAudio; ISBN: 9780062963703; Runtime: 9 hrs, 53 mins