Annus Mirabilis

With the launch of both a bestselling novel and the most widely-hailed new bookstore in the country, Ann Patchett has had a year of wonders indeed

by Margaret Renkl

State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett
Harper
368 pages
$26.99

Last June Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes were only in the earliest planning stages of their new bookstore—which didn’t yet have a location, a staff, or even a name—when Patchett left on a book tour to promote her new novel, State of Wonder. Clearly the store, more a hope and a dream than anything resembling a place of business, was in no way ready to be the subject of a national media blitz, but the timing couldn’t be helped: free publicity is something no independent bookstore is in a position to turn down. According to Patchett’s account of the story in an interview with Chapter 16, she asked Hayes, “Do you want me to talk about this on book tour? I’m going to be doing this media-heavy moment.” Truer words were never spoken.

As Ellen Myrick observed in an essay for Publishers Weekly, “Thanks to the renown of co-owner Ann Patchett, Parnassus Books is probably the most celebrated new bookstore in America.” Parnassus has been covered by The Christian Science Monitor, CNBC, Businessweek, Tin House (this one by Patchett’s fellow Nashville novelist Adam Ross), The Chicago Tribune, NPR’s Marketplace (where Patchett pretended to shoot an interviewer who confessed to buying ebooks through Amazon.com), and, of course, in a front-page article in The New York Times. And though the book first hit shelves six months ago, and Parnassus has been up and running since before Thanksgiving, still the articles and interviews and news reports keep pouring in. In fact, Patchett will appear today—at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on The Martha Stewart Show.

As The Los Angeles Times has pointed out, Patchett is not the first novelist to open a bookstore. Louise Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis; down the road in St. Paul, Garrison Keillor owns Common Goods Books. Larry McMurtry owns Booked Up in Archer, Texas. Jonathan Lethem is a co-owner of Red Gap Books, a used bookstore in Maine. But it’s safe to say that none of these other writers launched a bookstore while simultaneously launching a bestselling, critically-acclaimed novel. For Patchett, however, the bookstore and the book have gone hand-in-hand from the very beginning: before State of Wonder was even in print, it suddenly dawned on Patchett that for the first time in her writing life, there wouldn’t be a single bookstore in Nashville where readers could buy her new book.

And what a book it is. Widely regarded as the equal of Patchett’s breakaway bestseller, Bel Canto—or even its better—State of Wonder has so far been named to best-of-2011 lists by The Washington Post, NPR, Salon, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, IndieBound, and Bloomberg News. But true to her word to Karen Hayes, Patchett has turned all this attention to Parnassus as often as she possibly can. The store, she told Kerry Lengel of The Arizona Republic, is “the big news. I’ve been doing as many interviews about [Parnassus] as I’ve been doing for the book.” This reality is very much in keeping with the division of labor she and Hayes planned from the beginning: “I have a partner, Karen Hayes, and she does all the work,” Patchett told Salon. “That’s the long and the short of it. I do all the media, the publicity, the check-writing; frankly, the stuff that’s very easy for me, and the stuff that’s hard for Karen. And Karen does the stuff that is not easy for her, but would be impossible for me.”

Which is not to say that Patchett is a silent parter. Having spent large chunks of her adult life on book tours, Patchett has been in a lot of bookstores, and she believes she knows what it takes to create a shop that can survive the incursions of Amazon.com. “I wanted to recreate the kind of bookstore that I went to when I was growing up,” Patchett said at the grand opening event. “No fluorescent lights, not a superstore, no escalators. Where the emphasis is on staff instead of square footage.” In an impromptu opening-day speech captured on YouTube, Patchett reiterated the point: “The difference between ordering a book on Amazon and buying a book at Parnassus are these smart, kind, overqualified readers that we have in the store who can tell you what to read. ... I love you all.”

For Patchett fans, this bonanza of media attention has meant a wealth of new insights into not only State of Wonder, and not only Parnassus Books, but also Patchett the novelist. Thanks to all these interviews, we now know that it wasn’t a struggle for her to experience a real-life version of the book’s horrifying anaconda scene, for example, because she’s not nearly as afraid of snakes as she is of baby dolls. And that Patchett’s biggest challenge as a novelist in the twenty-first century is how to separate her characters from their cell phones: “I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment,” Patchett told Neely Tucker of The Washington Post. “I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.”

And how about this for a background detail: Patchett told Laura Ciolkowski of the Chicago Tribune that her patented authorial method—invent a bunch of characters with nothing in common, throw them into a state of shared trouble, and watch what they do—has an unlikely origin: “[The Poseidon Adventure] was the first time I saw something that made me think, Oh, that’s what plot is: you’re going along, it’s fine, then everything turns upside down; people band together, sacrifices are made, there’s passion, there’s loss, there’s a journey, and at the end you cut a hole in the boat and you come into the light.”

In typical Patchett fashion, she has seized this “media-heavy moment” to promote other writers, as well, particularly Edith Pearlman—whose new collection of stories, Binocular Vision, for which Patchett wrote the introduction, was a National Book Award finalist—and Sewanee debut novelist Kevin Wilson. In fact, invited by both Time magazine and Salon to pick a favorite read of 2011, Patchett chose Wilson’s novel, The Family Fang. “It would be worth opening a bookstore just to sell this book,” she told Southern Living.

As for her own book, Parnassus is selling it, too. “Would you call this a medical thriller?” Neha Bhatt asked Patchett in an interview for Outlook India. Patchett answered, “I would call it a literary novel, though a little more exciting than most.” Sounds like an apt description of the year Ann Patchett has had, as well. Consider these reviews:

“It’s not often that a novel leaves me (temporarily) speechless. But Ann Patchett’s new novel isn’t called State of Wonder for nothing, because that’s exactly the state I've been in ever since I first opened it. The numbness has worn off by now, but for days, all I could say to friends who asked me about it was the one-word review ‘Wow.’” ~Maureen Corrigan, at NPR’s Fresh Air

State of Wonder is a triumph and Patchett’s best book yet.” ~Susanna Rustin, writing in The Guardian

“The book for smart readers this summer." ~Ron Charles, writing for NPR’s Weekend Edition

State Of Wonder owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It has the same sense of threat emanating not only from the tangled, frightening jungle, but from the very souls of people. Marina is journeying into the heart of another woman’s obsession, and what she finds there does not disappoint: greed, longing, ruthlessness and the unknown.” ~Margie Thomson, writing for the New Zealand Herald

“Patchett combines this kind of literary reverie with a crystal clear plot that starts slow and gathers deliberate speed to a truly breath-taking resolution.” ~Nancy Doyle Palmer, writing in The Huffington Post

“A novel of ideas as well as a narrative of singular interest and suspense, State of Wonder explores the dangers inherent in scientific advancement, the finality of human choices and the endurance of loss.” ~Nancy Schiefer, writing in the Toronto Sun

“Patchett constantly challenges with her complex plot, pitch-perfect dialogue and character interaction.” ~ Deborah Colicutt, writing in the London Evening Standard

“[T]he pay-off comes from being immersed in Ms. Patchett’s enchanting prose and wondrous storytelling.” ~An unsigned review in The Economist

“Nothing is predictable in this enlightening, ambitious novel about exploration into the darkness—and light—of the human heart.” ~Connie Ogle, writing in The Miami Herald

“Patchett’s characters are entrancing, and she creates a dreamlike atmosphere that encircles the reader much like Marina's own jungle haze. ‘State of Wonder’ is one of the best books of 2011, and will undoubtedly seal Patchett’s reputation as one of today’s most talented writers.” ~Meganne Fabrega, rting in the Minnesota Star Tribune

“The large canvas of sweeping moral issues, both personal and global, comes to life through careful attention to details, however seemingly mundane—from ill-fitting shoes and mosquito bites to a woman tenderly braiding another woman’s hair.” ~Liza Nelson for O: the Oprah Magazine

“Is there nothing the prodigiously talented Ann Patchett can’t do? She’s channeled the world of opera, Boston politics, magic, unwed motherhood, and race relations, creating scenarios so indelible, you swear they are right outside your door. Now, in a novel as intoxicatingly strange as it is forbidding, she unfolds an intricately moving ‘Heart of Darkness’ story set in the Amazon jungle.” ~Caroline Leavitt, writing in the Boston Globe

“Patchett’s latest novel really is something special and worth considering for all the literary prizes, festivals and reading groups going this year.” ~Helen Brown, writing in The Telegraph

“In Marina’s reaction to this terrible news, which comes on only the book’s second page, Ms. Patchett gives a quick glimpse of how crystalline and exquisite her prose can be. Marina suddenly grasps why people faced with sudden shock are often advised to sit down. ‘There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding,’ Ms. Patchett writes, ‘as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.’” ~Janet Maslin, writing in The New York TImes

State of Wonder is more than an adventure story. It raises moral questions about the ethics of modern medicine, and about the insatiable nature of western civilisation compared with the simpler, if brutal, natural order of the Amazon tribes.” ~Catherine Heaney, writing in The Irish Times

Published Friday, 16 December 2011