New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett has published 12 books across three genres, won a long list of awards and fellowships—including the Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award and a Guggenheim—appeared on “The Colbert Report” and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, opened a thriving bookstore in Nashville, and been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
One thing she hasn’t done before? Visited Charlottesville.
That’s about to change: Patchett will be at New Dominion Bookshop on March 3 for a meet-and-greet. It’s not your typical book tour stop; after all, Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, has been out for more than five months. In fact, Patchett’s first trip to Charlottesville initially had nothing to do with books—she’d planned to come to town to see her friend and famed soprano singer Renée Fleming perform at The Paramount Theater, when her publicist suggested she try to sign some books while here.
“You should put that in the article: I’m coming to see Renée Fleming and accidentally sitting in a bookstore for a little while,” Patchett jokes.
Accident or not, Patchett’s reunion with Fleming (who provided the singing voice for the character of Roxane in the movie adaptation of Patchett’s acclaimed novel Bel Canto) is Charlottesville’s gain. And while we may have Fleming to thank for getting her to town, Patchett says the Kardashians actually deserve some credit for the early inspiration for her latest novel.
“I felt like there was this huge celebration of wealth everywhere I turned,” she says. “So, I thought, ‘I really want to write a book about somebody who has everything, has access to everything, and just says, this is not who I am.’”
Though there is a character in The Dutch House who does exactly that, the novel morphed considerably from this initial idea. In fact, Patchett wrote and completed one entire version of the novel, hated it, threw it out, and started again.
“People would say to me, ‘it must be like the death of a child,’ and I said, ‘no, it’s like burning a cake.’ It’s nothing at all like the death of anything,” she says. “When I was young, I think I wouldn’t have known that I was capable of starting over again. I might have felt it as a death. But at this point, you just think ‘Oh well, more work for me.’ And then you go back to work.”
Patchett’s work paid off. The Dutch House, which The Guardian describes as, “a masterful depiction of ruptured family relationships,” has spent more than 20 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Spanning decades, the book tells the story of Danny Conroy and his sister Maeve. The siblings grow up in the graceful mansion that locals refer to as “the Dutch House,” originally built for a couple from the Netherlands. They rely heavily on each other, especially after their mother leaves when Danny is 4 and Maeve 11. When their father remarries, they find themselves at odds with their stepmother—and eventually exiled out of their luxurious childhood home without a penny to their names.
Told from the first-person perspective of Danny, Patchett explains why his viewpoint—which begins in boyhood—was the right one to tell the story: “It is very much a book about Maeve, but Maeve is not the kind of person who would talk about herself,” she says. “I liked the idea of Danny looking at Maeve as opposed to the reader looking through Maeve’s eyes.”
While the house is certainly central to the story, the sibling relationship between Danny and Maeve is the axis upon which everything turns. “I find writing siblings so interesting because you can’t get rid of them,” Patchett says. “I just think no matter how much you hate a sibling, you are yoked to that person for life and, as a novelist, that is just a really great place to work from.”
However, Danny and Maeve are far from typical siblings, especially in times when Maeve serves as more of a surrogate mother to Danny. With elements of both Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, it would be fair to call The Dutch House a lost fairy tale of sorts, where the house takes on a life of its own, both in its continued looming presence and past symbolism. Moving through time in a satisfying non-linear way that expertly mimics memory, the book asks readers to consider questions of how we remember and move on from the past, how we deal with loss, what we deserve, and what we owe one another.
“A lot of people have said to me that this is a book about forgiveness,” Patchett says. “And I think, eh, it’s maybe more a book about making peace with the circumstances of your life.”
We see this theme come up again and again as Danny wrestles to make sense of his own circumstances. In one particularly poignant moment, he asks Maeve, “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” As readers bound to his perspective, we’re left to wonder the same thing.
Ann Patchett will sign copies of her latest bestseller and books from her backlist at New Dominion Bookshop on March 3. Go to ndbookshop.com to learn more.
A life in books
Since graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1987, Ann Patchett has published eight novels, three books of nonfiction, and (last year) one children’s book. Almost all have been bestsellers. Here are a few highlights:
Patchett’s first novel, published in 1992, centers on a young, pregnant, married woman in the 1960s seeking to escape her life. Her arresting first line is: “I was somewhere outside of Ludlow, California, headed due east toward Kentucky, when I realized that I would be a liar for the rest of my life.” The ensuing story encompasses a group of Catholic nuns, a home for unwed mothers, and a reputedly miraculous hot spring.
Published in 2001, Bel Canto was Patchett’s breakout success. Set in South America, the novel charts the unexpected moments and relationships that evolve as a lavish birthday party (featuring a star opera singer) is taken hostage by a band of terrorists. Awarded the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, it was adapted into an opera and a film starring Julianne Moore (with Renée Fleming providing the opera singing).
A deeply compelling work of nonfiction, Truth and Beauty tells the story of
Patchett’s tumultuous, decades-long friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002, and whose own bestselling book, Autobiography of a Face, chronicled her struggles through multiple reconstructive surgeries after losing part
of her jaw to cancer.
One of The New York Times’ Best Books of the Year in 2016, Commonwealth draws on Patchett’s own experience of being uprooted from her childhood home in California and “thrown together” with four step-siblings after her parents divorced and her mother remarried. The novel follows the six children of an uneasily blended family across five decades and the unraveling of family secrets.