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Best known for her fourth novel Bel Canto (2001), which was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002, Ann Patchett is a contemporary novelist who has earned a reputation for her compelling exploration of how humans form meaningful connections with each other.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Indifference to Roman Catholic
Education Patchett was born on December 2,1963, in Los Angeles, California. When she was six years old, Patchett’s parents divorced and she moved with her sister and mother to Nashville, Tennessee. Her father remained in California, working as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. As a child, Patchett attended private Roman Catholic schools but remained indifferent to her education. While reflecting on her school years, Patchett recalled a two-year period in which she was barred from recess because of a series of disciplinary infractions. As reported by Carol Brennan in Newsmakers, Patchett attributes her behavior during those years partly to her home life. ”We had peculiar circumstances,” she said of her family in a Publishers Weekly interview with Elizabeth Bernstein. ”She was a very loving mother, but we were scrambling; we had bigger things going on in our lives than whether or not I could read.”
Penchant for Storytelling
Despite her poor performance in other areas of school, Patchett impressed her teachers with her ability to tell stories. By the time she reached her teenage years, she had begun submitting poetry to national magazines, with the hope of becoming a poet. With this goal in mind, Patchett enrolled in New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. However, partway through her studies, she experienced a case of writer’s block. In an attempt to jumpstart her writing, Patchett enrolled in a creative writing class taught by novelist Allan Gurganus and began writing short stories. By 1984, she had graduated and her first short story, ”All Little Colored Children Should Learn to Play Harmonica,” was published in the prestigious Paris Review. The story, about an African American family—the Smileys—in the 1940s, attracted attention within literary circles and was later included in several subsequent anthologies.
Professional Training in Creative Writing
After graduating, Patchett worked for a stint as an editorial assistant before enrolling in the University of Iowa’s graduate writing program, a noted professional training ground for upcoming writers. Although she completed her M.F.A. in 1987, Patchett reported that she learned little during her stay at Iowa. She tried to expand her first story into a longer work but failed to develop a satisfying plot. After retreating briefly to Yaddo, a writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Millay, a writer’s colony in Austerlitz, New York, Patchett got married and taught classes at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. After her relationship ended abruptly, Patchett moved back to her mother’s house in Nashville, wrote, and supported herself by working at T. G. I. Friday’s. After selling them one of her short stories, Patchett worked for Seventeen magazine as a contributing writer for nine years.
From 1990 until 1991, Patchett was a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliff College. There she met the opera singer Karol Bennett, who she later used as a model for the character Roxane Coss in Bel Canto. Not long after, Patchett completed her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), which was awarded the 1989 James A. Michener Copernicus Award from the University of Iowa for a work in progress and was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. Set in the 1960s, the novel concerns a young pregnant woman who abandons her marriage and takes refuge at a home for unwed mothers. Patchett published her second novel, Taft (1994), two years after her first. Like the plot of her first book, Taft concerns a group of strangers who are brought together, in this case at a bar, and end up forming deep emotional relationships with one another. Taft was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best work of fiction in 1994.
While visiting her father in California, Patchett found inspiration for her third novel at a dinner theater magic show, where she was chosen to assist one of the performers. Soon afterward, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete The Magician’s Assistant (1997), which was shortlisted for England’s prestigious Orange Prize. While living in Nashville, Patchett helped her mother publish her own writing, including her first novel, Julie and Romeo (2000).
Literary Breakthrough with Bel Canto
After completing The Magician’s Assistant, Patchett spent the next four years writing her most famous novel, Bel Canto (2001), a story inspired by a real-life hostage situation at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, which occurred during four months in 1996. In her book, Patchett leaves the South American country unnamed but draws many parallels to the real crisis. Upon its publication, Bel Canto was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and took several other honors, including the $15,000 P. E. N./Faulkner Award in 2001 and the Orange Prize in 2002. Immensely popular, the novel has sold over one million copies in the United States alone and is now available in more than thirty foreign languages.
After her success with Bel Canto, Patchett continued writing and also became the editor of the 2006 edition of Best American Short Stories. Since 2001, Patchett has published one novel, Run (2007), and two nonfiction books: Truth & Beauty, a memoir chronicling her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, which won several awards, and What Now? (2008), an expanded version of the commencement address she gave at Sarah Lawrence College in 2006.
Patchett continues to live and work in Nashville, Tennessee.
Works in Literary Context
Patchett’s fiction frequently focuses on socially charged issues like racism, political divergence, and gender, depicting them through the lens of chance and circumstance. Most of her novels bring strangers together and explore how they form friendships and identities once they are forced to interact with one another. Patchett has stated that Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (1975) are among the most influential works she has read. She also includes Anton Chekhov, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Joan Didion, and her close friend, Elizabeth McCracken, among the authors who have influenced her work.
The Universal Potential for Human Connection
In her work, Patchett explores the potential for human connection between unlikely groups of strangers by placing them together in unusual circumstances. Confinement, whether physical or metaphorical, plays a key role in the development of the bonds that develop between people in Patchett’s stories. For example, in Bel Canto,a group of upper-class partygoers and guerilla terrorists connect with one another during a four-month hostage situation despite the barriers of language, class, and circumstance that exist between them. In The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett confines her characters to an abandoned hotel in Kentucky that has been converted into a home for unwed mothers. In The Magician’s Assistant, her characters are confined to a tract house in snowy Nebraska. Such confinement shields her characters from the prejudices of society and allows them to connect, forever changing their lives. For example, Taft concerns the taboo bond that develops between an old bartender and a teenage girl as she helps him come to terms with being abandoned by his girlfriend and son.
Works in Critical Context
As an author, Patchett has enjoyed considerable success. Her first novel won an award prior to its publication, and her subsequent works have received largely positive reviews. In a review of her work, Washington Post writer Joseph McLellan praises the author’s realism: ”Patchett’s psychological observations are usually intriguing and most often convincing.” McLellan also praises her accessibility by noting, ”Her style is fluent and highly readable.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler offers his assessment of Patchett: ”She is a genius of the human condition,” he states. ”I can’t think of many other writers, ever, who get anywhere near her ability to comprehend the vastness and diversity of humanity, and to articulate our deepest heart.”
Bel Canto, Patchett’s fourth novel, enjoyed a warm reception from critics. Discussing the book’s central theme, James Polk of The New York Times Book Review writes, ”Bel Canto often shows Patchett doing what she does best—offering fine insights into the various ways in which human connections can be forged . . . whatever pressures the world may place upon them.” Despite widespread praise, not all reviewers responded favorably to the novel. For example, Helen Brown of the Daily Telegraph criticized the book’s characterization, arguing that
the uptight chief executive, the compassionate diva, the rebel leader who wants only the best for his country, and the quiet translator are all disappointing, two-dimensional stereotypes. They are like opera characters who require soaring art, bel canto, to move their audience.
Like Bel Canto, Patchett’s most recent novel, Run, has enjoyed a warm reception from critics. Writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reviewer Holly Silva describes the novel as ”moody and thoughtful, gentle in its handling of weighty topics, and quietly suspenseful.” In her assessment, what makes the novel ”technically astonishing” is ”[t]he range of big issues, as they are expertly intertwined and paced.” Sarah Weisman of Library Journal found the novel ”engrossing and enjoyable.” Patrick Ness of The Guardian praises the thematic content of the book, which is ”about good people who try to do their best by each other,” as well as Patchett’s ability to ”accomplish this without sentiment or stupidity.” Leah Hager Cohen, writing for The New York Times, says that Patchett’s ”lack of frivolity in her prose” makes her different from other writers. Commenting on Patchett’s writing style, Cohen says that Patchett ”doesn’t dally excessively over a pretty phrase,” and that she is ”more hammer and nails than glue and lace,” thus making her books ”solid, weight-bearing constructions.” Janet Maslin, another New York Times reviewer, agrees by saying that the novel ”shimmers with its author’s rarefied eloquence, and with the deep resonance of her insights.”
- Berne, S. ”The Magician’s Assistant. By Ann Patchett.” The New York Times Book Review 102, no. 46 (November 16, 1997): 17.
- Cohen, L. H. ”Run by Ann Patchett.” The New York Times Book Review 112, no. 39 (September 30, 2007): 7.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. ”Truth & Beauty: A Friendship. By Ann Patchett.” The New York Times Book Review 109, Part 20 (May 16, 2004): 10.
- Sayers, V. ”Run by Ann Patchett.” Commonweal 135, no. 2 (January 31, 2008): 27-28.
- Somerville, Kris. ”Truth & Beauty (review).” Missouri Review 27, no. 2 (2004): 197-199.
- Updike, J. ”Ann Patchett’s ‘Run.”’ New York Magazine (October 1, 2007): 98-100.
- Ann Patchett. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.annpatchett.com.
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