Ann Patchett is an American author born in Los Angeles. She has written eight novels, her most recent being The Dutch House, which was published in September 2019, but she has also written pieces of non-fiction in the form of memoirs and self-help books. She has been publishing consistently since 1992 when she released The Patron Saint of Liars, which was well-received and chosen as The New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Patchett is perhaps best known for her insightful depictions of human nature, the good, the bad and the ugly, as well as her stories about families and how they help and harm each other. Each novel’s plot and characters are vastly different, displaying how Patchett is not afraid to do her research and delve into life circumstances perhaps initially unfamiliar to her.
Patchett’s first novel was a major indication of her talent and position on the literary scene – she refuses to shy away from uncomfortable truths or hide behind likeable characters. She tells the story of Rose Clinton, a married woman pregnant with her first child, who escapes her dull marriage to take asylum at St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers. Rose must lie about her position, placing herself amongst the other unmarried girls, hoping to gain some connection to these women and pledge herself once more to God. Rose’s reason for abandoning her husband is not wholly justifiable but is forgiven for the characters she meets once she arrives. Readers typically rate this as one of Patchett’s best novels; it was a wonderful debut and served as proof of what was to come next.
2. Bel Canto
Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Faulkner Award in 2001. It is loosely based on the Lima Crisis that took place between 1996 and 1997. At a birthday party at the Vice President’s home in an undisclosed South American country, terrorists raid the event to take the President hostage. In their failure, they hold onto several hostages in the hopes of gaining a ransom. What ensues is a series of friendships and romances, all within the tight grip of kidnappers. While several attempts to turn the novel into a film have fallen through, it was turned into an opera in 2015. Although many praised Patchett for this novel – the awards speak for themselves – others believed this was not her typical genre, and it showed in the often unbelievable action scenes. This novel will likely be something you either love or hate, but of all Patchett’s novels, it has been the most successful and critically acclaimed.
Patchett’s most recent work buries itself in your mind; the characters take up residence in your thoughts, forcing themselves to be seen and understood. The elusive Dutch House that fascinates protagonist Danny and his older sister Maeve remains somewhat of a mystery to the reader, despite the long passages of description and the many times the siblings sit in a car outside their former home, the formidable Dutch House, discussing memories from childhood. This story has a Snow White/Hansel and Gretel vibe, with the father dying and the stepmother casting the children out, but the rest of their lives proceed normally. Danny goes to medical school to use up money his father set aside for his education, but as soon as his studies finish, he gives up medicine and goes on to manage buildings. Maeve lives a solitary but not necessarily unhappy existence working for a frozen vegetable company, never entertaining thoughts of marriage or romance. By the end, Maeve and Danny are well-rounded characters, their hopes, desires, and fears explicit to the reader, even as the Dutch House remains locked away from us. Of all the novels on this list, The Dutch House received the highest rating on Good Reads.
Commonwealth, as with most of Patchett’s novels, deals with issues in the domestic sphere. When a stolen kiss at baby Franny’s christening turns into an affair, two families are brought together and torn apart in ways they never could have imagined. The narrative splits into several characters at different points in their lives. Commonwealth effectively brings to life each of the parents and children from the Keating and Cousins families. Patchett has herself described the novel as semi-autobiographical; perhaps this is the secret behind how the nuances or quirks of each character are so utterly authentic. Although Commonwealth may be deemed as less exciting than some of her earlier works, it has an emotional poignancy that is perhaps lacking in her prior novels. The characters seem to step from the page and amalgamate into members of our own bloodlines. The skeletons in Patchett’s family closet are in full view here, no longer hidden behind the guise of a faraway land.
The New York Times said this novel is, “Patchett’s most far-flung yet somehow least exotic book.” The story follows Marina Singh, a scientist living a relatively boring life, sleeping with the CEO of the company she works for, when she is told that her research partner has died. This sends Marina on a journey to Brazil where her partner had been working on something colossal with their former professor. The novel isn’t her typical story set in the home or within the family, but it does touch on other important relationships within our lives, such as that between teacher and student. The novel was shortlisted for The Orange Prize, which Bel Canto won. Readers largely enjoy State of Wonder, although I would note that it is probably the least Ann Patchett-like novel of the bunch. The science examined in the novel almost leans in on speculative/dystopian fiction, something Patchett had not previously dipped her toes into, but it stays just on the outskirts of this genre.
In her initial novels, Patchett proves that she can create beautiful stories out of unusual and original circumstances, and The Magician’s Assistant is no exception. Sabine has loved Parsifal for decades, despite knowing that he is gay and has never returned her feelings in the romantic sense. When he dies, Sabine has nothing left – her career as the magician’s assistant is finished with Parsifal’s death, and she must now come to terms with the fact that she loved and married someone who couldn’t love her back. But like a rabbit appearing out of a magician’s hat, Parsifal’s secrets begin to emerge, revealing a family that Sabine believed to be dead. Although the crux of Sabine loving Parsifal doesn’t make much sense, Patchett still weaves a wonderful story of comradery found in the midst of loss.
Patchett returned to her roots with Run, a domestic story about a family that adopts two brothers. Bernadette and Bernard already have one biological son but decide to extend their family. The novel jumps timelines quite a bit, although the main story takes place in a 24-hour period. After the huge success of her previous novel Bel Canto, critics were less wowed by Run. It fell into the same patterns as her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, where the motives of the protagonist are often weak and don’t give reason enough to propel the story forward as they should. After a six-year hiatus, particularly after Bel Canto, Run was perhaps always doomed to fall short of filling those shoes; some readers felt it was trying too hard to be politically correct and that there were cheap metaphors that Patchett’s writing is normally too good to concede.
Taft contains many of the same themes and characters as Patchett’s first novel, and to some it is considered even better. Set in Memphis, the novel follows John Nickel, a bar manager who has recently been abandoned by the mother of his son. When Fay and Carl Taft walk into Muddy’s bar after moving to escape the pain of their father’s grief, John takes them under his wing. The novel explores John’s relationship with the two orphans, the son who is taken from him, and Fay and Carl’s relationship with their late father. While critics believe this is better than Patchett’s first novel, readers aren’t as convinced, with her later novels gaining better ratings from the average reader. Taft receives the lowest rating on Good Reads of all of Patchett’s novels, despite the graceful changes in perspective and deep understanding of unusual family dynamics.