Books

The ‘Wonder’ of Ann Patchett

By Amanda Festa  

This September, the Literary Traveler Book Club will be discussing Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder.  Before delving into the text, here are five things you might like to know about the book and its author, who was named one of Time  Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012.

1. Ann Patchett is BFF with Elizabeth Gilbert.

Just like some people watch TMZ and read the tabloids, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite actors canoodling in real life, I like to think that my favorite authors are doing the same.  Only instead of incognito cocktails at Chateau Marmont, I picture them chatting over coffee at an outdoor café, an image I have surely taken from one of my favorite author photographs, and a candidate for a literary tabloid circa 1922.  I imagine the two writers, Djuna Barnes and Solita Solano, discussing their work while sipping coffee, sharing ideas and inspiration.  Now, nearly a century later, I imagine Patchett and Gilbert doing the same.  Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love  and our August book club selection, The Last American Man.

The two are not only friends but pen pals. Instead of texting or commenting on each other’s Facebook wall, they write each other handwritten letters delivered not by wireless internet, but the US Postal Service.  Both such talented writers, what I wouldn’t give to eavesdrop in on one of their exchanges. Of this voyeuristic inclination, Gilbert would approve.  During a Portland Arts & Lecture series in 2009, Gilbert and Patchett participated in a joint appearance, during which Gilbert insisted that the two “should be miked whenever we’re together.”  Reality show, anyone?

2.  Patchett is such a fan of bookstores that she opened her own!

In 2011, Patchett and business partner, publishing veteran Karen Hayes, opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.  In the midst of a multitude of local bookstore closings, Patchett opened the small independent Parnassus, which she named for the Greek mythological mountain that provided a home to the Muses, and thus poetry, music and learning.  Of her decision to open the store, she told the New York Times  that, “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore, but I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

At only 2,500 square feet, Parnassus Books radiates warmth, offering an intimate experience that is far from what one could expect at a larger, chain bookstore.  They host author events, as well as a book club, and even their website exudes a unique personal charm.  Check out the Staff page and learn more about the people at Parnassus, whose passion becomes obvious through fun facts and anecdotes, made even more special by the inclusion of a “part-time store dog,” Lexington, who “prefers an afternoon with a good Jane Austen novel to a game of tag in a sunny field.”

3.  State of Wonder has drawn comparisons to Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness.

Many reviews are highlighting the connection between Patchett’s novel and Conrad’s 1902 work.  While Patchett’s novel takes place in the Amazon rainforest and Conrad’s in the African Congo, they do feature a similar premise.  Marina and Annick can be read as female doppelgangers for Conrad’s characters of Marlow and Kurtz, the former sent to track down the latter amidst the indigenous people that populate the landscape.  Analogous themes are also explored in both, including questions of responsibility and morality.  USA Today  calls her novel  “Heart of Darkness-lite,”  but Patchett is quick to brush aside the comparisons.  She tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Everybody’s looking for a catchphrase.”

4.  The Lakashi Tribe in State of Wonder is named for Patchett’s favorite breakfast cereal!

The indigenous tribe is not only fictional, but named after the author’s cereal of choice, Kashi.

5.  Patchett got her start writing for Seventeen Magazine!

Patchett’s writing career has taken an interesting course.  Although first published in The Paris Review before she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, she spent nine years working for Seventeen Magazine, where only one of every five pieces she submitted was accepted for publication.  While she is quick to say that her experience with the young adult publication was less than spectacular,  she credits it  for  “making me the workhorse I am today.”  We have no doubt about her work ethic, as State of Wonder is her sixth novel (she has also published three works of non-fiction) and we anticipate many great works yet to come!

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Join our discussion of State of Wonder on Facebook,  Twitter, or send us your feedback on the book by e-mail.  We would love to hear from you!  And if you are in the Boston area,  join us on September 25th for the Literary Traveler Book Club.