I’m about to board the long flight from Amsterdam to San Francisco and I’m nervous. I’m not worried about my safety or concerned that I’ll get another three-hour crying baby next to me or anxious that I’ll be in the sumo wrestler’s row. I’m simply afraid that there are not enough pages left in Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty to see me through to the end of the flight. She is the kind of writer that makes me sad when the book ends, knowing that my day won’t quite be the same without her sentences feeding some necessary part of my brain’s synapses and my heart’s secret corridors.
The first book I read of hers a few years back was the popular Bel Canto. I liked it fine and found the plot intriguing, but don’t remember feeling any special affinity with her writing style. It was just a few months ago that a friend recommended her new book State of Wonder, but because it wasn’t out in paperback yet, I found myself thumbing through Run in the bookstore. It captured my attention and though I was a tad disappointed in an ending that didn’t connect every dangling thread in my favorite Dickensian style, I was happy to realize that there were more of her books out there. So on I went to The Magician’s Assistant, then got out State of Wonder from the library and continued on with The Patron Saint of Liars (perhaps my favorite). Now I was down to just two left and since Taft wasn’t available at the bookstore I ran to just before my trip, only one other remained. I was reluctant to read a hard (and true) story about a friend with cancer, but I walked out with Truth and Beauty in my hand, a title that was prophetic. Indeed, many hard-earned truths beautifully expressed.
The themes, characters, settings of all the above books are wide and varied— no predicting what the next one will be. Though the endings continued to trail off a bit for my taste, the stories are all compelling and the characters memorable. But what really hits me is the music of the language, not excessively floral or intellectually gymnastic, but just plain melodies expertly played and sincerely felt. There’s just something about her rhythm and cadences that strums some strings I like to hear, so that the mere act of reading is consistently a pleasure. Plus the deft handling of a simple idea expressed so that unlikely images pair up and get you thinking, slapping your knee with a sense of “Yes! That’s so true!” A few examples:
“Lucy and B__ broke apart and came back so many times they were like a plate that had been dropped on the floor repeatedly: more glue than china.”
“If I imagine the artists in Paris, I do not see them dusting.”
“We were a pairing out of an Aesop’s fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips.”
Do you see what I mean? Little nuggets of wisdom polished by carefully wrought language and turned to gold. And there are many more too numerous to quote in a short blog.
Usually my blogs praising someone like this would be titled “I Hate Ann Patchett!” Why the candid confession of love? The condition for hate is some kind of loving competition, the sense that I’m in the same field and would like to have accomplished what this other person has— in my case, people like Keith Jarrett, David Whyte, James Hillman, Sofía López-Ibor. Perhaps because I suspect I’ll never write a novel, I don’t feel that kind of competition (although Truth and Beauty is a non-fiction memoir and something I wouldn’t mind considering). Perhaps I’m just so grateful for her company that I’ll forego the jealousy. Who knows?
Meanwhile, I’m happy that Taft awaits me and Ms. Patchett, I hope that as I type, you also are writing your next book. I await it eagerly.