All Ann Patchett Reading List
Ann Patchett’s memorable body of work could fill up at least a couple of Bookmarks lists. Fiction and nonfiction – she excels at both. Here are five Ann Patchett books that have won readers’ hearts:
The Magician’s Assistant, published in 1997, is a bittersweet story about, yes, a magician’s assistant, and what she discovers about her boss after he dies.
For 22 years, Sabine was the assistant to the Los Angeles magician Parsifal. They had a marriage of convenience; she knew he was gay, and she knew his lover, but for various reasons the arrangement suited them both.
Then Parsifal dies of AIDS-related complications, and Sabine discovers that Parsifal, who described a very privileged upbringing, had made it all up. His real name was Guy Fetters and he grew up in the mundane Middle American town of Alliance, Nebraska.
Parsifal claimed he had no relatives, but Sabine soon learns otherwise and travels to Kansas to learn more about Parsifal’s family and his past.
Sabine learns the truth behind Parsifal’s decision to leave his past behind. All the Patchett books I have read feature people who are put under stress by unusual situations and, for the most part, discover or reconnect with their own humanity. She has such a gift for characterization, not to mention settings: she beautifully portrays both worlds Parsifal dwelled in, the glitz of L.A. and the mundane rhythms of life in his Nebraska hometown.
Patchett’s next novel, the prize-winning Bel Canto, was so good, I read it twice. I couldn’t quite believe that someone would produce such a work of imagination.
For this 2001 book, Patchett took a real-life situation – the 1996-1997 occupation of a Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, by political radicals – and turned it into a novel. She retold the story with an unlikely person at its center – an opera singer.
Roxane Cross has been lured to perform at an embassy in a small Latin American country by the promise of a lot of money – it’s the birthday of a Japanese electronics magnate, and he is an enormous fan of her work. Just as she has finished her performance, terrorists swarm the embassy and take over. Then the story really begins.
There are flashes of terror, long periods of boredom (the occupying terrorists become addicted to a soap opera), and death. Throughout the story, Patchett succeeds in portraying the humanity and complexity of everyone involved, from the corporate titan to the terrorists. A particularly interesting character is Gen, the magnate’s multilingual translator, who serves as the communications nexus for almost everyone in this amazing story. If you haven’t read it, you are in for a spell-binding experience. I think I just talked myself into reading it again! Unsurprisingly, the book was made into….an opera.
Patchett has written both fiction and nonfiction, notably her 2004 memoir Truth & Beauty.
This moving, harrowing book tells the story of Patchett’s relationship with the woman she described as her best friend, the writer Lucy Grealy.
Grealy endured a disfiguring facial cancer and multiple treatments and surgeries for her condition. She chronicled her experience in the 1994 book Autobiography of a Face. Life never got easier for her, and she eventually died of a heroin overdose at age 39.
Patchett tells the story of their friendship – how they met at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, how Grealy recruited Patchett to be her best friend and protector, and how their friendship evolved into a sort of tortoise –hare relationship – Grealy was the brilliant, mercurial one, Patchett writes, she was the diligent worker. This is a sad story, but a beautiful testament to friendship and idealism. Patchett adopts a restrained writing style in this book – the material is powerful enough – but she uses her friend’s letters to show what an immensely talented woman she was.
Patchett’s novel State of Wonder returned to the storytelling structure of creating characters, then thrusting them into a strange environment that tests them.
It’s the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. She is sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab mate — Anders Eckman, a nice family guy who was himself sent into the rain forest months earlier to find another employee, the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson’s mission was to discover the secrets of a particular tribe of women in the Amazon who were able to conceive and give birth into their 70s, a potential gold mine for development of a fertility drug.
Patchett excels in portraying the beautiful, daunting environment Singh finds herself in. As with her other books, there’s a cast of fascinating characters, outliers who have washed up on one of the most remote spots on earth. I saw the resolution of this story coming pages before the end, but I still thought it was a very impressive novel.
Finally, try out Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a memoir that revisits people who have meant a lot to the author, including her grandmother, the toughest nun who taught her in grade school, her husband and her dog (not a person, but an important presence in her life). She even writes about her decision to open a bookstore.
This is the story of a woman who loves books, and who has made a lot of other people who love books very happy indeed.