Born 2 December 1963, Los Angeles, California
Ann Patchett has had an extremely successful young career. Her first book, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), published when she was in her mid-twenties, was a bestseller and made into a TV movie. Her second novel, Taft (1994), received great reviews. Her third book, The Magician's Assistant (1997), was another bestseller and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in Britain. Patchett also writes nonfiction, publishing in magazines such as GQ, Outside, and Vogue.
Patchett summed up her first three novels with these words: "I wrote one book over and over. It is about a group of desperate characters who come together by circumstance and become a family." While these novels of circumstance have been criticized for being overly contrived, most critics have been willing to overlook this, citing the rewards to be found once disbelief is suspended.
In Patron Saint, a young, pregnant, married woman in the 1960s runs away from her life in Southern California and ends up at St. Elizabeth's, a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky, intending to give up her baby. She completely abandons her old life, including her husband, who doesn't even know she's pregnant, and her much loved mother. She finds a new world at St. Elizabeth's, "a country unto itself," and a new life among the nuns and other pregnant girls.
In Taft, John Nickel, a black bar owner in Memphis, is another lost soul. He has given up a promising career as a drummer to be a father, but his son's mother cannot forgive him for not marrying her when he first learned she was pregnant, and eventually takes the boy away with her to Florida. Patchett doesn't suggest that the holes in her characters' hearts can ever be entirely filled, but she insists the wounds can be patched. In this case, Nickel's loneliness is augmented by his unlikely involvement with a pair of white teenagers who have recently lost their father, the title's Taft. Nickel finds a way to explore his own feelings about fatherhood by imagining the life and emotions of the deceased Taft.
As The Magician's Assistant begins, the assistant, Sabine, finds her life has effectively ended when the magician, her partner and the object of her devotion for 20 years, suddenly dies. Again the arrangement is rather complex, for the magician, Parsifal, was gay and lived for many years with his Vietnamese lover, Phan. Parsifal marries Sabine only after Phan dies of AIDS and Parsifal learns that he will likely die in a year or two. He tells her he wants her to be his widow. Sabine is the sudden inheritor of Parsifal's rug business, Phan's magnificent Los Angeles home, and a pack of lies. Parsifal always told Sabine he was alone in the world, his family killed in an auto accident; she learns this is not true.
Again Patchett insists on redemption and again it is found in an improbable spot—wintry Nebraska—where Sabine travels to visit Parsifal's mother and sisters. Her grief is eased as she recreates Parsifal's past and sleeps in his boyhood bed. Here, as in Taft, the power of imagination is part of the healing process. She learns of the painful events that caused Parsifal to make a complete break with his past and comes to understand why he kept his secrets. Sabine is also able to do what he couldn't: offer a chance of escape to his sister, Kitty, who was left behind. In Kitty, Sabine also finds the promise of the kind of love she never had with Parsifal.
Patchett's universe is orderly; when a door closes, somewhere, always, a window opens. This impulse toward redemption is democratic; no characters get written off, no one remains unforgiven at story's end. Reality is portrayed but is leavened by the possibility of magic; Sabine's Los Angeles has places where you can't go anymore, even in the daytime, yet ocean breezes often blow away the smog.
Patchett has taught at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She has held numerous writing residencies and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1995.
Booklist (19 July 1994). Independent (2 Feb. 1998). KR (1 Mar. 1992, 1 Aug. 1997). Larson, S., Black-and-White Blues, The World & I (1 Mar. 1995). LATBR (19 Oct. 1997). Newsday (6 Oct. 1994). NYTBR (26 July 1992, 15 Oct. 1994, 15 Nov. 1997). Sacramento Bee (15 Oct. 1998). Tennessean (5 Apr.1998)