The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett’s first novel

The problem with reading an author out-of-order is that most tend to get better with experience. Ann Patchett is one such writer. I am definitely a member of her fan club because of novels like STATE OF WONDER and BEL CANTO. So when my mom gave me PATRON SAINT OF LIARS, I was eager to start.

In keeping with her other books, Patchett does a tremendous job with the setting. I could picture Hotel Louisa and the surrounding Kentucky landscape easily in my mind.  I loved her description of the few weeks a girl could actually lay on the ground between winter and the time when heat and bugs made it impossible.

Patchett has a way of crafting sentences that keeps me completely engaged in her story. Honestly, I was hooked on this novel within the first few pages:

I was somewhere outside of Ludlow, California, headed due east for Kentucky, when I realized that I would be a liar for the rest of my life.

I appreciate that kind of set-up and looked forward to the unraveling of these lies. What unfolds is a small family saga set around a Catholic home for unwed mothers. This location, with mothers constantly coming and going, provides the perfect background for Patchett to delve into this unlikely family, especially the tension of an uneasy mother-daughter relationship.

There were so many things I needed to know, how to fix a car, how to lie. My mother taught me how to put on eyeliner without smudging it, but life was going to take more than that.

We see multiple generations of genetic mothers, mothers present and absent, surrogate mothers and even a father of choice. The struggle between Rose and Cecilia is especially poignant as a daughter looks to her mother for something she is incapable or unwilling to give.

The way it seemed the fact of her beauty had never occurred to her and made her so much more beautiful…And I wanted it. And I knew she would think I was ridiculous for wanting it…and if she could give it to me, she would pull it over her head and hand it to me like an old dress. “Take this,” she’d tell me. “It never did me any good.”

This is a theme Patchett seems to return to in other novels. The desire for approval, intimacy and respect drive some of her best relationships. Cecilia and Rose are no exception. Their relationship provides the meat for the story.

Patchett chooses to switch narrators several times throughout the book. Unfortunately neither of the voices is as strong as Rose, whose story pushes the first third of the book. Plus, once Son and Cecilia take over the story, we lose Rose. I understand the intention behind that choice. Their inability to truly know her is an important part of the story, but as a reader, I felt cheated.

Then, of course, there are the last 50 pages. I won’t spoil the plot here, but I actually groaned. I am still not satisfied that Ann Patchett closes her novels as well as she starts them, but she’s come a long way since THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS.

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Paperback Picks

 

SO MUCH PRETTY  by Cara Hoffman

   4 stars

It took me a while to really catch the rhythm of this novel. The first half is completely non-linear, with dozens of shifting perspectives and crisscrossing chronology. The reader knows something terrible happened (at least one thing, that is); but Hoffman keeps us on the line a long time before we get the details. The details are sickening and horrifying, but by that time I cared about this town and these characters so much that I was compelled to keep reading. The author has a lot to say about how we live, about violence against women, about storytelling. It’s really quite intelligent, mysterious and gratifying.

ANATOMY OF A DISAPPEARANCE by Hisham Matar

   5 stars

How does an author write about something/someone who no longer exists? In Matar’s case, with incredible beauty and delicacy. His words seem not so much written, as poured gently. “I felt dizzy, as if comprehending the scale of things for the first time and with it the vast yet intricate reality of the physical world and my precarious presence in it….I wanted this world to be still. I wanted to fix it and be fixed in it.” Matar provides a touching story of a boy whose father disappears. We assume it’s a political kidnapping based on the few clues the author provides, but we don’t get all the answers — exactly Matar’s point. He wisely tells a story without depending on plot points. Instead, we get what’s left to his son. “I never have him whole. I am always standing too close to take him in properly.” It’s this feeling of what’s left unsaid that marks Matar’s strength as an author. perfectly paced from beginning to end, this is a short, graceful read.

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

4 stars

Vanessa Diffenbaugh does an amazing job at balancing the beautiful and the ugly. The book’s title led me to believe I would read something charming and romantic. Instead, I found a tale of neglect and abuse. But underneath the sad tale is a protagonist grasping at the one source of beauty in her life, flowers. The “language” of flowers comes to represent all the emotions she can find – truth, despair, attraction, envy – but for the reader, ultimately leads to redemption. I just love how Diffenbaugh keeps all of this working, while still telling an engaging, even gripping, story. There were a few too many tidy conveniences for my taste, especially toward the end; but, overall, I found this book stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it.

 

Secret Relief

I don’t divide my year by traditional seasons. Who needs Winter – Spring – Summer – Fall when I can use Basketball – Track – Baseball – Soccer?  Just like weather in the Midwest, my seasons overlap wildly. When my sons ask what to wear on any given day, I’m not thinking about the temperature outside; my mind is asking, “What time is the game?” “Will we be able to come home and change before practice?” “Is his game jersey clean?”

When I was the mother of two, I smugly placed my sons (only 16 months apart) on all the same sports teams. One practice schedule, one game schedule. I rolled my eyes at parents shuffling from piano to baseball to Chinese for toddlers. I vowed I would never be one of “those” families. My sons would focus on one extra-curricular activity at a time. In the recesses of my mind I was thinking, “One thing at a time, at my convenience.” I was a fool.

CT, ready to play.

Even when Matt was born ready to play, my husband and I managed multiple schedules without much trouble. We are all sports fanatics. Not playing baseball was not even an option for them, so luckily they enjoyed it and did well. We added basketball, and eventually came track with the school and a passion for soccer, seemingly born into Matthew. Pat & Connor still played on the same teams and we worked it out so we just moved our family from diamond to field to pitch to court.

Boys huddled to determine their next play.

But in the past year, something happened. The oldest two can no longer play on the same teams. And, apparently, my sons are not content to just let me schedule their lives. They want to choose their own activities. (Gasp!) They don’t have identical talents. (What?) They want to be on teams with their friends. (Why?) They dare to be well-rounded individuals pursuing multiple interests, socializing, and doing their homework. What kind of monsters have I raised?So now my husband and I are like proverbial ships passing in the night as we divide up dinner times, chauffeur duty and #1 Fan status. It’s working out. I wouldn’t choose otherwise.

But last night, when my oldest son’s basketball team lost in the first round of the post-season tournament, I was relieved. I cheered along with the rest of the parents, but deep in my heart I did not want them to win. It’s a terrible mom admission to make, but I wanted basketball season to end. I was dreaming of the endless hours I would have during the one single game-free week until baseball’s Meet-Your-Coach night.

When I admitted this secret shame to a friend, she agreed that it pretty much makes me a bad mom, but also “hilariously awesome.” I’m good with that.

Congratulations to the Cougars, for a great season that ended just in time.

Chalkboard Restaurant in Chicago

Last month, we had a lovely Sunday dinner at Chalkboard Restaurant in the city. It was one of those perfect nights when the boys were happy, the food was great, and everything went as planned. My Chicago Parent story is here.

http://www.chicagoparent.com/magazines/chicago-parent/2012-april/going-places/the-chalkboard-restaurant

 It would be simple to say we ate a dinner of tomato soup, mac ‘n’ cheese, steak and whitefish, but that would mean leaving out the critical elements.

Undiscovered Worlds at Adler Planetarium

I recently took my oldest son to see the new film at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would be that interesting for me, but I ended up inspired by the discoveries still being made. I thought the Age of Exploration was over, but I was wrong. My story was just published in the April issue of Chicago Parent magazine.

Undiscovered Worlds at Adler Planetarium – – Chicago Parent | ChicagoParent.com.

Monday Quote – Treasure each moment

“If I knew that today would be the last time I’d see you, I would hug you tight and pray the Lord be the keeper of your soul. If I knew that this would be the last time you pass through this door, I’d embrace you, kiss you, and call you back for one more. If I knew that this would be the last time I would hear your voice, I’d take hold of each word to be able to hear it over and over again. If I knew this is the last time I see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already.”    ―      Gabriel García Márquez