Ann Patchett’s novels have achieved both critical and commercial success. Patchett was born in Los Angeles and is the daughter of Frank Patchett, a police captain, and Jeanne Wilkinson Ray, a nurse. Her parents divorced when she was three. Her mother moved with her and her sister to Nashville, Tennessee, when Patchett was six. There, Patchett attended Catholic schools.
She entered Sarah Lawrence College in New York intending to be a poet, but while taking a fiction writing course with novelist Allan Gurganus, she realized that her true interest was in fiction. Her first short story, “All Little Colored Children Should Learn to Play the Harmonica,” was published in The Paris Review when she was twenty-one. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a B.A. in 1984. The following year she went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1987, she completed her M.F.A. there.
While doing some teaching, Patchett managed for the most part to focus on her writing. She was a writer-in-residence at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania for 1988-1989 but left there when she and her husband separated after one year of marriage. They subsequently divorced. In 1989 she was a residential fellow at the Yaddo and Millay writers’ colonies. She returned to Nashville and worked as a waitress for a time. Winning the James A. Michener/Copernicus Award for a work in progress and a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, enabled her to complete The Patron Saint of Liars. In 1992, she was a visiting assistant professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. She earned a fellowship from the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College in 1993 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. In 1997, she was a Tennessee Williams fellow in Creative Writing at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
In addition to her novels, Patchett published short stories in Columbia, Seventeen, Southern Review, New Madrid, Epoch, and the Iowa Review. She also contributed essays to GQ, Vogue, Outside, and The New York Times. From Patchett’s first publication, her work has been honored. The Patron Saint of Liars was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1992. It was adapted as a television movie for CBS in 1998. Taft won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best work of fiction in 1994. Both books have southern settings, but her next two works were located out of the region.
The Magician’s Assistant, set in California and Nebraska, began as a short story, “The Magician’s Assistant’s Dream,” winner of the Editor’s Choice Award for Fiction in Columbia: A Magazine of Prose and Poetry in 1987. The idea for the short story and novel came to Patchett when she visited a magic show with her father. In 1997, the year of the novel’s release, Patchett was named the Nashville Banner’s Tennessee Writer of the Year. Bel Canto, which was loosely inspired by the seizing of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, by terrorists, received the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. In 2002, Bel Canto was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, Europe’s annual book award given to the best book by a woman author.
Patchett may be studied as a southern novelist and also as one who employs elements of the fantastic. Specifically, Patchett’s novels focus on lonely or damaged people who ultimately manage to reconnect with others. For example, Son Abbott in The Patron Saint of Liars escapes a personal tragedy to arrive at St. Elizabeth’s, a Catholic home for unwed mothers, where he becomes the handyman. His marriage to Rose allows him to raise Rose’s daughter Sissy and love her as his own. Throughout the novels, Patchett credibly and subtly explores the internal lives of diverse characters. In Taft, for instance, the protagonist is John Nickel, an African American ex-drummer who now manages a bar in Memphis and who is trying to reconcile with his son and his son’s mother after failing to marry her.
As noted before, Patchett’s novels can be categorized as realistic, though she also explores some experiences that transcend everyday reality. The experience may be a miracle, an exercise in the imagination, a dream, or even an aesthetic encounter. Dreams help Sabine, the title character in The Magician’s Assistant, come to terms with her grief for the magician Parsifal. The aesthetic experience of music unites the diverse group of characters in Bel Canto. As a hostage situation drags on for months, opera star Roxane Coss’s singing builds bridges among the hostages, who speak a variety of languages, and between the captors and their captives. Above all, there is a sense of optimism in Patchett’s work. While tragedies may occur, her characters can and do make positive changes in their lives. The novels end in possibility and hope.