Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Ann Patchett’

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’ve been enjoying reading my way through Ann Patchett’s books, most recently State of Wonder which I thought was readable, although not up to the standard of Bel Canto.

State of Wonder follows an American scientist, Marina Signh, whose colleague recently died in the Amazonian jungle while carrying out investigations for the company at an outpost laboratories in Brazil.

Marina was sent to the jungle to follow up by her boss, Mr Fox, who wanted her to find out what happened to Anders Eckman to give Eckman’s family closure, but also, and more importantly for the company, to learn how Dr Annick Swenson’s development of a drug which allows women to remain fertile their whole lives is progressing.

Marina’s journey to the remote tribe somewhere living in a rainforest somewhere in Brazil is not for the faint-hearted and when she arrives, things in the laboratory were not as expected.

Marina’s romantic involvement with Mr Fox complicates matters, as does the fact that the abrasive and driven Dr Swenson was Marina’s idol and teacher when she was in university. The horrible nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drugs Marina takes further complicate the decisions she needs to make.

The story seemed overly muddy and complicated to me, with characters who didn’t add much getting in the way of the story. There was too much detail about things that didn’t matter and not enough details about those that did. I struggled to believe in Marina’s relationship with Mr Fox, mostly due to the differences in their moral values and strengths and also because after a year of seeing each other Marina was unable to call him by his first name.

I think State of Wonder is a book Ann Patchett fans will enjoy, but not the book I would recommend to someone new to this author.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good book, however I loved Bel Canto by this author so much that I can’t quite forgive Commonwealth for not being as good. My problem, not the book’s. I should have waited another year before reading it.

Commonwealth tells the story of the children of a blended family with six children over a fifty year period. The story starts at the christening of the youngest girl, Franny, when her mother is kissed by an uninvited guest who brought a bottle of gin to the party. This was in the 1960s, so having the words ‘christening’ and ‘gin’ in the same sentence wasn’t as odd as it would be now.

The two adults, Beverly and Bert fell in love and dissolved their families to start a new one with her two children, and his four. The story then follows the children as they grow up together, running wild all summer. Six children are too many for Beverly to manage and Bert takes no responsibility for them at all and tragically, the lack of supervision leads to the death of the eldest boy, Cal.

The children make it clear that their parents fell in love with the idea of escaping their real lives (and for Bert particularly, the responsibility of his children) as much as they fell in love with each other. Their marriage didn’t last either, as Bert eventually played around on Beverly too. They divorced and both went on to third marriages.

As interesting as I found the adult’s story, though, the story of Commonwealth belongs to the children. Beverly’s daughters are Caroline, the aggressive, bossy older sister who leads the pack, and Franny, who floats along, letting life take her where it will. As a twenty-something, Franny falls into a relationship with a much older celebrated author, who hears the story of her childhood and uses it to write a successful novel. Franny tells most of the story, although occasionally the point of view switches to another character. The story isn’t told chronologically, probably because if it had been there would have been nothing for the characters left to discover about themselves later on.

Bert’s children are Cal, who died as a teenager, Holly, who abandons life in the USA to spend her days meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette, who everyone thought was mentally deficient as a child but who turned out to be the most well-adjusted of them all and Albie, the youngest boy whose story was in some ways the saddest of all. Albie was such a painful child that no one could bear to be around him.

Two characters I would like to know more about were Father Joe Mike and Beverly’s sister Bonnie, but I suspect I never will. They go together like gin at a christening.

Ann Patchett’s writing has a feel of Jane Austen to me, in that she (or rather her narrator), is amused by her characters and their lives. I like this style enormously. I liked Commonwealth enormously too, but am going to wait longer before reading another book by this author so that I can enjoy it without comparison to Commonwealth or Bel Canto.





Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


Just like Ann Patchett’s kidnapped characters in Bel Canto, I never wanted to leave the beautiful world I found myself in. I wish this book had gone on and on and on…

Bel Canto is set in the home of the Vice President in an unnamed, poor Latin American country. The story starts with the Vice President hosting a dinner party for a Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, to entice him to build a factory in their country. The guests include a who’s who of business people and their wives, along with Mr Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer, American Roxanne Coss, who is engaged to sing after dinner.

Just as Roxanne finished performing the lights went out and when they came on again, the guests realised that a band of kidnappers had snuck in and taken them hostage. The intended target was the country’s President, but unbeknownst to the kidnappers the President ditched the party at the last minute to stay home to watch his favourite soap opera.

The rest of the story takes place over the next four months. Some of the guests and staff were freed, but the most important guests remained as hostages in the Vice President’s living room. Mr Hosokawa, his translator, Roxanne, a priest, the Vice President and a bunch of Russian businessmen make up the main characters amongst the hostages, while the kidnappers include three self-appointed Generals and a motley group of teenagers; both boys and girls with guns.

Because of the many language barriers amongst the parties, Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, becomes the most important person in the room. Gen translates the negotiations between the kidnappers and a Red Cross negotiator, for different groups of guests and between the hostages and the kidnappers. He translates for Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne as their friendship begins and develops during their imprisonment, and he translates a delightful declaration of love from one of the Russian businessmen to Roxanne. After the declaration, Roxanne comments to Gen that “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.”

Every day Roxanne sings while a Japanese businessman accompanies her on the piano. Mr Hosokawa and a General play chess. Gen teaches one of the kidnappers to read. The Vice President discovers the joys of cleaning house. Various parties fall in love. Businessmen learn how to relax. Kidnappers and hostages become friends. As time passes, most of the kidnappers and the hostages realise they do not want their life in the Vice President’s house to end.

I am not a fan of opera but I enjoyed the way that singing and music brought these characters together, although I suspect that in real life some of the guests would have their fingers stuck in their ears for a bit of peace and quiet, rather than everyone falling under the spell of the music. I almost brought myself to listen to some of the pieces sung in this book, but I couldn’t quite manage it… I would quite like opera if nobody sung.

I loved Bel Canto. Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer whose skill and craftsmanship show in every word of this story. I didn’t like the ending of the book, but although I have been thinking and thinking of how else it could have ended, I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

I’m a newcomer to Ann Patchett’s writing, having only recently read her collection of essays and memoirs in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, but am looking forward to making my way through her works.



This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett


I’ve never read any fiction by Ann Patchett, so had no particular reason for picking up This is the Story of a Happy Marriage except that I liked the title. As it turned out, I liked the author’s voice in this collection of memoirs and essays so much that I have already found a novel by this author to read.

The stories and essays tell of events which shaped the author’s life and career. Most have appeared in magazines or other publications.

I particularly enjoyed reading how the author honed her craft writing for Seventeen, bridal magazines, Vogue, the New York Tes Magazine and Gourmet, travelling or writing about particular experiences up to a particular word count on demand, then ruthlessly editing to suit a number of task-masters. The Getaway Car advises would-be writers sit down at their desk for two hours every day for two weeks, writing, (or trying to), without using the internet, reading or becoming distracted by tasks around the house. If would-be writers can’t manage this, then Ann Patchett suggests that writing is not for them.

One of the ideas which struck me was hearing that the author struggled to find work which left her with enough mental energy to write for herself, she tried teaching, worked in restaurants and took on other jobs before realising that she could get paid for writing, which fuelled her creativity and output rather than supressing it. This makes sense to me, as I’m only good for doing the dishes after a day at work followed by a long commute, which is why I write my book reviews early in the morning.

There are stories about the type of people who turn up to ‘Meet the Author’ events and I was surprised, (although on reflection, I don’t know why) to learn that they are the readers of the book prior to the one currently being promoted. There are also stories about friends, husbands, family members and dogs. The story about the author’s beloved dog, Dog Without End touched me most of all.

The Sacrament of Divorce reminds readers that we don’t have to stay in the wrong marriage until death do us part. The Best Seat in the House describes the author’s love affair with opera, which she discovered while doing research for her novel, Bel Canto. My Road to Hell was Paved was written for Outside magazine, and was intended as an expose on grey nomads endlessly on the move in their Winnebagos in their often ridiculed way of life, but the author confides that she ended up loving the lifestyle after a junket to Yellowstone National Park. The Mercies is a lovely story about the author assisting and becoming friends with the now-elderly nuns who taught her in school.

The title story, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is the story of the author’s parents and grandparent’s marriages, happy and unhappy, as well as her own first marriage to the wrong person and her second, happier marriage. The author’s advice for picking the right person to marry came from a friend;

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked.

“Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?”

“That’s all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?”

Ann Patchett has a meticulous voice which made me feel conscious of reading her stories more carefully than I usually read. She does not always paint herself in the best possible light and her honesty is likeable. This made every word of every story ring true.

I’m looking forwarding to working through Ann Patchett’s novels, starting with Bel Canto.

Tag Cloud