Life In Four Novels

A worn chapter book on the ground covered in fall leaves.

The first book I read by the great Ann Patchett was “Bel Canto,” and I remember the experience so vividly. I was newly married and had just moved to St. Louis. I didn’t know a single person there and was spending my days feeling nervous and alone while he was away at class.  After weeks of staying inside, I asked my husband to draw out a map to the nearest library; this was pre-GPS. The library was a beautiful old building just past the highway with stained glass windows that rattled with the movement of nearby speeding cars. 

At the library, I picked out a few books, but none made me really excited. As I was checking out, a librarian suggested “Bel Canto” to me.  It didn’t sound like the kind of book I liked – I was very into crime thrillers at the time – but I checked it out anyway, hugging the books close to my chest as I walked to my car.

That night, I picked up “Bel Canto” and started reading. I promptly lost myself in the story of a terrorist attack, an opera and a romance.  It was sweeping, intimate and moving, and I knew immediately that this book fit the kind of reader I was growing into – and she was a reader who loved Ann Patchett. One of my most vivid memories in St. Louis is laying on a truly uncomfortable couch – sweating in the heat – and reading “Bel Canto” once…and then again.

Her next book, “The Magician’s Assistant,” reminds me of being with my husband at a vicarage in Connecticut. By this time, I was a dedicated Patchett fan. Her second book was magical. While it didn’t possess that same magic of my “Bel Canto” reading experience, I do have memories of reading the book while my husband bustled around the kitchen. It was snowing outside, and the hopelessly-in-love protagonist resonated with me in that moment; she was so hopeful, so newly enamored.

I discovered “State of Wonder” years later at the airport on my way to Palm Beach, Fla. I was traveling with a girlfriend and we both decided to grab books at Denver International Airport’s Tattered Cover Book Store. I started reading “State of Wonder” before we took off and of course, I was hooked. Throughout the vacation, when we weren’t snorkeling, sunbathing or swimming, I was reading. And when I hit that scene – and if you’ve read the book, you know the scene I’m talking about – I sat up in my pool chair and read it out loud to my friend. SNAKES, MAN.

“The Dutch House” came highly recommended by a co-worker.  It was different than anything else I’d ever read by the author. It provides an intimate look at a broken family and features a too-close relationship between a brother and sister, their story colored by death, another death, laughter and connection. The narrative centers around a house, above all – a very special, very disturbing house. While, I didn’t love the book with the same passion as I did her other books, “The Dutch House” made me a better reader just by existing. I felt myself stretching as I read. Experiencing the book symbolizes for me that quiet place that I found myself just weeks later: quarantined during COVID and stuck in own Dutch House, longing for escape but not sure how to find it. Her books have seen me through so many big life changes, and will continue to bring solace, intrigue, joy and wonder to my life, I’m sure.

I’ve learned that there are some authors that you love, and then there are authors that you love, the ones that change something inside you when you read their words. 

My life can be measured in Ann Patchett books, and I’m changed for the better because of it.

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