That opening scene is lavish with literary allusions. The motherless child hiding in the curtains is from “Jane Eyre.” Children observing adults from the top of the stairs recalls Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew.” And any tight, inscrutable sibling bond will always summon up “The Turn of the Screw,” which Maeve happens to keep on her nightstand. Later we see her reading “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson’s novel about a pair of siblings abandoned by their mother.
Patchett’s prose is confident, unfussy and unadorned. I can’t pluck out one sentence worth quoting, but how effective they are when woven together — these translucent lines that envelop you like a spider’s web. It can feel old-fashioned: her style, her attachment to a very traditional kind of storytelling — a vision of the novel as a Dutch house, with a clarity and transparency of purpose and method, a refusal of narrative tricksiness. But like the family’s Dutch house, it’s an enduring structure, which gives an added dimension to the references in the text — its way of gesturing toward a lineage.
Another lineage flows through the book: the theme that unites Patchett’s fiction and nonfiction. “Mothers were the measure of safety,” Danny thinks, grateful for Maeve’s protection after his mother’s disappearance. “Home, bed, sleep, mother — who knew more beautiful words than these?” Patchett wrote in her 2007 book “Run.” “Don’t have a baby,” she describes her grandmother pleading, in an essay on caring for her in her final years. “What she meant was that she was my baby and I didn’t need another one.” In “Truth and Beauty,” Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, she writes about Grealy’s claim on her. “Do you love me?” Grealy would ask her, climbing into her lap, even in the middle of dinner parties, begging to be held and carried. “Of course I love you,” Patchett would respond. “Best?” “Yes, best, but you are crushing my thigh.”
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.
When Danny marries, it is to a bright woman for whom renunciation comes easily. “Celeste was plenty happy in those days, though in retrospect she was the ultimate victim of bad timing, thinking that because she was good in chemistry she should marry a doctor instead of becoming a doctor herself. Had she come along a few years later she might have missed that trap altogether.” Meanwhile, Maeve, a brilliant student in her youth — the winner of a math medal at Barnard — leads a pinched life, moving back home, working as bookkeeper, keeping herself single and available to care for her brother into adulthood.
“The love between humans is the thing that nails us to this earth,” Patchett wrote in her memoir “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” — a belief her new novel shares but shades with caution. There’s no missing the statement’s brutal, brilliant ambivalence.