I was late discovering Ann Patchett. It was about ten years ago and she’d been a successful novelist for almost two decades. Since then, Patchett has become one of my favourite writers. When a new book comes out I’m like those nerds who camp out at the Apple store to score the latest iPhone. I guess that makes me a Patchette nerd. I wear it proudly.
Patchett is a brilliant writer, capturing the human spirit with laser-like insight. Despite her characters’ flaws, she finds the beauty and love inside them, showing us the truth of ourselves. If we too are flawed, as each of us surely is, we are capable still of so much. As a writer, I’m awed by her abilities and have gone often to her advice on the craft.
As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also a huge dog lover and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. What’s not to like? If you're interested, here's a link to Ann's blog: parnassusmusing.net/category/anns-blog/
So, for those of you who’ve yet to discover Patchett and those who’ve only dabbled, here’s a brief rundown of her novels and major works of non-fiction.
The Patron Saint of Liars
Set in the early 60s, a confused young woman marries a man she’s not in love with. Pregnant, she abandons her life and husband in California and moves to a home for unwed mothers run by the Catholic Church. Deciding to keep her baby, she stays on as cook and marries the haunted, lonely groundskeeper who raises the child as his. As the daughter grows up in this home of ever-changing pregnant girls, she begins to question her mother’s past. Beautiful, but sad, with wonderfully crafted characters.
After the success of her first novel, Patchett talked about the curse of the second novel. John, a black ex-Jazz musician runs a bar in Memphis and wishes he could spend more time with his son. He hires a white girl as a waitress and she and her volatile brother become more and more ingrained in John’s life. John becomes obsessed with the story of their dead father, leading him down the twisted path of strangers. You be the judge - is the curse of the second book myth or fact?
The Magician’s Assistant
Sabine, twenty years an assistant to her handsome husband, suddenly finds herself a widow. A false identity and a family allegedly lost in an accident but now revealed to be alive. Named as heirs in his will, this family enter Sabine’s life and sets her off on an adventure of unravelling secrets.
If you only read one of Pachett’s novels, it deserves to be this one. A wonderful, mesmerizing, beautiful book to be read again and again. The story line is unusual, completely believable, yet almost dreamlike. A band of terrorists, some just teenagers, in an unnamed South American country hold a group of wealthy people hostage in the home of the country’s Vice President. Gathered to celebrate a powerful businessman’s birthday, the hostages include opera’s most revered soprano, and what begins as a panicked life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something very different. The characters are vast and richly drawn - each one wonderfully imagined and very real in their desires, fears, and joys. Patchett captures our shared humanity, imagines our grace and beauty as easily as our violence and brutality.
Truth and Beauty
Leave it to Patchett to write such a beautiful book about her epic friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy. The two met in college and developed a deep and fascinating friendship that survived everything Lucy could throw at it - competitiveness, selfishness, cancer and drug addiction. Tormented by never-ending surgeries to correct her facial deformity, and her failure to find love, Lucy is that maddening, but always compellingly alive, true friend. Told with compassion and humour, Patchett’s love and heartbreak is beautifully displayed. This is what it means to be part of two lives intertwined and what happens when one is left behind.
A story about an usual family and its outreach to a larger family and community. Two adopted boys are raised by their loving and ambitious father since their mother’s death. When an argument in a blinding snowstorm inadvertently causes an accident, the plot centres on the identity of a stranger and her child, All the disappointments and flaws of families are present with the addition of racial and class tensions. Engaging and provocative.
State of Wonder
The story centres on a single middle-aged medical doctor turned researcher who works for a pharmaceutical company. When her friend and colleague is reportedly dead in the Amazon jungle while looking for a woman working on a miracle drug, she goes to find out what happened to him and the status of the new drug. As she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness, she must confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice. Suspenseful from start to finish with richly drawn characters and a world of stunning surprise.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
A combination of literature and memoir, Patchett offers wonderful insights into her writing and how she got to where she is. Patchettt uses her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, including an early divorce, a second marriage, the depths of friendship, deep love for an elderly dog, and several other portraits of her life and ideals. There are many beautiful stories here.
A modern story about the dissolution of two marriages and the joining of two families through a chance encounter at a christening party. Patchett examines the reverberations this incident has on the six children involved. Spanning five decades as the characters move forward to craft a life, they must each come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for each other. Told with humour and heartbreak.
The Dutch House
With incisive focus into the human heart, Patchett traces acts of cruelty and forgiveness through three generations of a family over fifty years. A brother and sister are thrown out of their spectacular and privileged life after their mother leaves them and their father dies. Propelled into a life full of loss and rage, their unshakeable bond saves them but also thwarts their future. Patchett shines a light into how we nurse our hurts and grievances and the freedom gained by giving them up when they no longer serve us.
I hope you’re all keeping well, safe and sane during these troubling times, and manage to utilize this extra time for a bit of additional reading. Stay safe, stay home, wash your hands.
Until next time, happy reading.