28 Aug Author Spotlight: Ann Patchett
Written by Nick Philip, Adult Services Supervisor
In the literary world, a new Ann Patchett novel is always a noteworthy event. Her latest release, Tom Lake, follows the Nelsons, a family of Michigan cherry farmers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lara, the family matriarch, was once an actress who shared not only a stage but also a whirlwind romance with superstar Peter Duke. Lara regales her daughters with tales from her younger days acting at a summer stock theater, Tom Lake, which they hang onto every word. Patchett has established herself over the past 30 years as one of America’s finest storytellers and this novel is a prime example. If you’re interested in diving into her work, here’s a quick rundown of her other novels.
2001’s Bel Canto is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Patchett’s body of work. Inspired by the Lima Crisis of the mid-1990s, Patchett explores a hostage situation in South America, during which romance ensues between unlikely pairs. Though they don’t share a common language, American opera singer Roxane Cross and Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa find comfort with one another. Hosokawa’s translator, Gen, and one of the terrorists, Carmen, must keep their love a secret amidst the chaos. The book remains a staple in American popular literature and was honored with the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2002, as well as a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book was adapted into an opera by composer Jimmy Lopez and as a film by director Paul Weitz, which stars Julianne Moore as Roxane and Ken Watanabe as Hosokawa.
In the tradition of works such as Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Patchett’s 2011 novel returns to the South American continent of Bel Canto. It follows Marina Singh, a pharmacologist on a journey to contact her enigmatic teacher Annick Swenson, who is holed up in the Amazon working on a secret project. The last messenger sent to Annick was reported dead, so Marina goes on a dual mission to figure out both what happened to her colleague and what Swenson was really up to in the jungle. State of Wonder was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Patchett’s most recent work is The Dutch House, released in 2019, which paints the story of the residents of the eponymous Philadelphia-area mansion. Maeve and Danny Conroy spend the early part of their life in the grand estate with their emotionally distant father, Cyril, and later his new wife, Andrea. After Cyril’s passing, complicated decades unfold as the house is left to Andrea, and the Conroy siblings are left to dream long into adulthood of returning to their beloved Dutch House. This novel was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
This 2007 follow-up to the immensely successful Bel Canto delves into a very interesting Boston family. After a Jesse Jackson speech in Boston, Tip Doyle, one of two black adopted sons of former mayor Bernard Doyle, is pushed out of the way of oncoming traffic by an unknown woman. What follows is a series of revelations about Tip, his brother Teddy, and the complexities of political and racial connections in a community.
2016’s Commonwealth is, like The Dutch House and Run, a portrait of a family in turmoil. When she was an infant, Franny Keating’s mother Beverly took up with Bert Cousins and the resulting affair led to the blended family of eight in which Franny was raised. Secrets are examined and 50 years of suburban family history explored when Franny publishes a book about her dysfunctional family later into adulthood. Commonwealth was nominated for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
Secrecy was not a new theme to Patchett’s writing by the time of Commonwealth. Her third novel, 1997’s The Magician’s Assistant, follows a young woman named Sabine who has just lost her husband, the titular magician Parsifal. In the aftermath of Parsifal’s death, Sabine begins to learn that her husband’s estranged family is not, in fact, dead, as he had told her. What follows is an examination of how people connect and the grief they feel for those they love. The Magician’s Assistant was shortlisted for the 1998 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Patchett’s debut came in 1992 with this historical fiction work set at Saint Elizabeth’s, a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky. The narrative follows three figures: Rose, a pregnant woman from California fleeing her husband, making her the only married woman at the home; Son, the handyman at Saint Elizabeth’s who becomes Rose’s new husband; and Sissy, the daughter who brought Rose to Kentucky in the first place. These three characters and their relationships are tested and examined in this novel. The Patron Saint of Liars was adapted as a TV movie in 1998, with Patchett herself writing the screenplay, Dana Delany starring as Rose, and Clancy Brown starring as Son.
Patchett’s sophomore effort is this portrayal of a found family from 1994, moving south from Kentucky into Tennessee. The titular character, Taft, is dead and his children, Fay and Carl, become attached to Memphis barkeeper John Nickel. Nickel’s son Franklin lives in Florida and, as a father separated from his child, is well-suited to bond with the children separated from their father. Their relationships evolve, in both familial and romantic ways, making this a very interesting book about fatherhood while introducing readers to fascinating characters along the way.