It was sometime around 2003 or 2004. I was perusing my high school library, a dangerous task given the notoriously unpleasant librarian, who when in a good mood would corner you and talk about her latest find, usually some esoteric non-fiction and then make you check it out (that is how I read a biography on Hoagie Carmichael at the age of 15), or when she was in a foul mood, would blare opera from her office and snarl at the slightest interruption.
Of course, to a gaggle of high school girls, nothing was more frightening than a balding lady with sever scoliosis and an inability to understand teenagers. Looking back, I realized what a sad state she was in, approaching retirement, her health failing, and a certain dislike emanating from both the students and teachers.
But as a teenager, I did not see that. Or what I did see, I did not really want to understand. I would sneak in, hopefully to the fiction sections, wary of anyone else who dared to approach. Silence, in this library, was of the essence.
And that of course was how I found a book called Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I remember debating whether or not I wanted to check it out – it was both somehow lurid and literary, the back cover description describing the chance fate of a South American millionaire, an opera singer, and some Japanese businessmen being held hostage. I felt wary about the Italian title – someone in a writing workshop much later on stated that to title a book or a poem in a foreign language was pretentious and even then, I somehow divined that this title might suggest a book that rested its laurels to heavily on Italian culture. But more importantly, I genuinely wondered if the librarian knew the contents of such a book. Given that it was Italian, there might even be some sex!
What I found was that it was a delightfully enchanting novel. The absurdity of the scenario was all the more believable as I fell into the story and the realistic characters. What could have been a mass market beach read was a novel that was brimming with humanity and a gentle literary persuasiveness. This was the kind of book that both sides of the book world could read.
It took me a couple more years to read another Patchett novel; this time I was out of college and far away from the sneaking sensibilities of adolescence. The book, Taft, was about a bartender and ex-musician battling with his sense of ambition, when a young girl and her brother step into his life. It takes place in Memphis; the bartender, Taft, is black, the siblings white. Patchett underscores the question of race in a contemporary Southern city , but in such a gentle way that it is hard not to fall wholeheartedly into the story of the characters and really identify with their concerns. Perhaps I identified with it too much — it spoke to me in a way no book had done in a long time. I felt that somehow in this story, so different from my own, it was also somehow about me.
And that of course, was a very dangerous place to be. As an English major, you are supposed to be passionate, but removed. You love the world of books, but there is that critical distance that must be met in order to be successful. You have read too much to be the child-like reader, delighted and captivated by every book that comes a long. You no longer yearn to be taken up into the pages of the novel, somehow switching lives with the characters.
Luckily, as it would have it, the next Ann Patchett book that I read, Run, was so far removed from Taft that there was no danger of me becoming some sort of literary stalker. While Patchett is quiet in her literary sensibilities, Run exploited her weaknesses as a writer. Her scenarios are often unusual and improbable; I often think she must read a snippet of a story in a newspaper and runs with it. Run (which is quite an apt title for a novel that runs away from itself) is about a white politican and his wife who adopt two black boys in Boston. In a chance encounter after the politician’s wife, their adopted mother dies, the two boys become reunited with their biological mother without knowing it. But here, everything is too overdrawn, too far removed from the characters that Patchett normally excels at creating. They usually remain entirely flawed and human in the most unusual of circumstances, but here, everything falls into a caricature, whether it is the white politician adopting black children, or the mother dying and leaving two damaged children. Run proceeds with a flat narrative that leaves one wondering what the overall point was. It could have been a book about the nuances of people, who on the surface may appear ordinary and yet are entirely unusual, but instead became a book about stereotypes.
Despite the failure of Run, there was still one Patchett novel that I heard calling my name. It was the book that my high school self must have seen lying underneath the cover of Bel Canto, the book that I would have found lurid and lyrical. A book so entirely appropriate for a Catholic high school girl that I was surprised I hadn’t read it sooner.
To be continued tomorrow…