Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ann Patchett: four titles

  • Bel Canto: A Novel (2002)
  • Truth & Beauty: A Friendship (2004)
  • The Patron Saint of Liars: A Novel (1992)
  • Taft: A Novel (1994)

This is the other reason I was inspired to start this blog: I recently completely by accident got on a streak of reading some of Ann Patchett's books, and I guess I just wanted to share it with someone!

My mother left the novel Bel Canto here at my house a while ago, and it was on a bookshelf with other books I hadn't gotten around to reading. Something about the description of the book just did not grab me: the story is about an opera singer who is supposed to perform at a big party at an embassy in a South American country and everyone is taken hostage by rebels, and the story is about how they all cope with being held hostage and the fallout from the situation. Hmmm.

So the book sat on my shelf for a while. Then an issue of Runner's World came in the mail last year with a book review of Ann's latest novel Run. The review intrigued me and suddenly I remembered I had this other book by her sitting on my shelf. So that is what got me to read Bel Canto.

I loved Bel Canto! Once I started reading it, I just couldn't put it down. The relationship that develops between the singer and the Japanese gentleman who admires her is so unusual and intimate and private that is it sometimes almost uncomfortable to read about, you feel like a voyeur knowing too much about them; yet, they are surrounded all the time by the other hostages and rebels and in fact, have no privacy. The other characters, hostages and rebels alike, are also very interesting, well done and I was taken with all of them, and very invested in the outcome! I won't give away anything else about the end, but I enjoyed the book very much and highly recommend it.

So then I was at Jenny's house earlier this month (for our half marathon: read about that in my other blog at http://www.fitandfabulousatforty.blogspot.com/) and up in her guest room there is a bookshelf with books visitors leave when we are done with them. I had just finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History on my long flight over (yes, I left it at Jenny's house!) and was looking for another book to read, and saw that there was another book by Ann Patchett sitting there: Truth & Beauty.

Truth & Beauty is not a novel, it is a memoir of the author's friendship with another writer. But it is so well written that it reads like a novel. Again, I loved reading it, although so much of it is sad and hard. It makes me want to be a writer, but also not want to be a writer, if you know what I mean. You see how both of them struggle to make a living out of their writing, how her friend Lucy struggles with her health and how Ann does everything she can to be supportive. At times I was amazed at her bravery in putting everything out there for all of us to read, but at the end of the book, I felt it was a warm and honest tribute to her friend and their friendship.

While I was still at Jenny's (and still reading Truth & Beauty) we stopped at a bookstore one day...it is dangerous to take me to a bookstore, sometimes I buy far too much and then my suitcases are way too heavy. But I promised myself I would be good. One of the four books I got was Ann Patchett's debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. I would have wanted to buy Run, her latest, but it was only available in hardcover and weight and budget constraints made me decide to wait til it comes out in paperback and my next trip to the US.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a novel about a woman from California who is unhappy in her marriage, discovers she is pregnant, and decides to leave without telling her husband or her mother (who she is supposedly very close to) and go to a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky to have the baby and give it up for adoption. So far, this is my least favorite (but it is still a good read) of Ann Patchett's books. I had a hard time relating to the main character and understanding why she felt compelled to leave everybody behind. I liked the characters of her second husband and her daughter, whose stories complete the book, but I felt bad for them that she treated them so coldly. She ended up having all these people around her who loved and admired her, but for some reason it meant nothing to her. Finishing the story made me feel deflated and sad.

I finished The Patron Saint of Liars after I was already home in Belgium. Last week my oldest son wanted to go to the main public library in downtown Leuven. The advantage to the main branch over our little local branch is that not only do they have a huge collection of music CD's (for my son) but they also have a great selection of English fiction (for me!) So while I was waiting for him to decide what CD's he wanted to borrow, I thought I would see if they had (you guessed it) anything by Ann Patchett.

Well, they did, actually, they had just about everything (except Run, probably too recent still). I decided to check out Taft. This is another novel that I couldn't see myself picking based just on the description and not knowing anything about the author. It is about a black man, John, who used to be a blues drummer but now is a bar manager in Memphis and the weird relationship he develops with a young white woman who works as a waitress in his bar and her brother. It is also about his struggle and desire to be a good father to his young son while dealing with the difficult relationship he has with the boy's mother. The book was so good I read it in one day.

For me the best part and the core theme of the book was about fatherhood. The relationship he tries to maintain with his boy and his grief at being so far away from him, the minefield of the in-laws...this is beautifully countered by the parts of the book that are about Taft, the father of the white girl and her brother, who also tried his best to be a good father. It was not clear to me if the parts about Taft (who had died) were what John imagined or dreamed about Taft, or what had really happened to Taft, but somehow it didn't matter. You could see that somehow John felt compelled to help the sister and brother as some kind of substitute for not being able to fully be with his own son. What clashed for me a little bit was how John related to the girl. Their attraction to each other never seemed realistic to me. But totally believable was the sacrifice he made to protect her brother, who didn't really deserve it but had no father of his own to step up to the plate for him.

So I will definitely be looking to read Run when I can get a copy of it, and my next trip to the library I am going to get The Magician's Assistant, her other novel. I'll keep you posted!

And if you want to know more about Ann Patchett and her books, go to: http://www.annpatchett.com/.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Amy, your new blog is really great! I love your view on the four books you read.