Patchett Job

I have been a little obsessed lately with the idea of rereading. Not the doing of it, but definitely the idea of it. There was a period when almost everything I read was something I read before. I mined the same books on my shelves over and over again. Now I almost never do. And ever since I picked up The Secret History for the first time in a few years and found that the book was the same but I was different, I have been a little obsessed.

How have I changed? How long does the change take? Are these changes temporary or am I a different person with different tastes now?

I rewatch movies sometimes but it's not the same. With movies I wonder if the movie is still good. With books I wonder about myself. If the book was good but isn't anymore, then clearly something substantial has shifted in my head. It is more than just culture and art changing, it is not about a book's place in the world.

I meant to dive into an experiment of rereading books I loved when I was young, big difficult books that feel alient to me now. That didn't quite go off. It has been too stressful of a summer for slogs. So I decided to go the opposite direction and do some comfort rereading.

It started innocently. I read the galley of Ann Patchett's upcoming novel Tom Lake (pubs August 1st) and even though I was not in love with the book I was relieved with how easy it always is to read Patchett. So I thought maybe this could be a little rereading project, to go back to her books and see if I've changed.

Some of them feel just the same. (I could have basically rewritten my reviews of Commonwealth and Bel Canto from my original reads.) But I was extremely "huh" about my 5-star review of The Dutch House, which I read only 4 years ago (pretty much to the day). I can't even say it was pandemic feelings because it was 2019. But now I thought it was merely nice, no longer dazzling, irking me in all kinds of ways.

The Dutch House
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combin…

In my first read of The Dutch House it felt like a fairy tale. And I was captivated by the way Patchett moves you through time, forward, backward, somehow never jarring, but also not in simple or predictable ways either. I wasn't fully spoiled, I remembered only the vaguest things--they don't get to stay in the house, the mother returns at some point--so it wasn't familiarity that ruined it. It was something else. It was, I dare say, Patchett herself.

If you sit down and read Commonwealth, The Dutch House, and Tom Lake all in a row it is hard to ignore the similarities. They are set in different places and times. They are about different things. But they are all about families. They are often about the passion people have or don't have for their work. And they all have that nonlinear narrative, that moving back and forth that so dazzled me when looked at individually now felt old hat. Like she has some secret formula she is able to apply. The magic is not entirely gone, I still don't know how she manages to do it, to make it feel so effortless, but familiarity breeds contempt and all that.

The one that I was waiting for, though, was State of Wonder. I have told people this is my favorite Patchett ever since I read it. A lot of people disagree with me. Most people, really. But I stuck by it. It was about a scientist! Two scientists! Lady scientists! In the Amazon! I didn't really remember anything else, except that I loved it.

State of Wonder
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring sn…

I sat down with my copy and began to read. It started quickly, an inciting incident, and then it got very slow. Our protagonist waits. We wait with her. We all keep waiting. I started to get antsy. I went to Goodreads and pulled up my review. There is no review. It was from just before I started reviewing books on Goodreads. Way back in ye olden days of 2012. But there was one notable detail. I started it on February 22, 2012. This was exactly 8 days after I'd given birth to my second child. I can't say I was my normal self when I was 8 days postpartum. I was normal enough to read (I even read in the hospital) but nowhere near normal.

Eventually the waiting stopped. The book only got good in the last 75 pages or so. (At the same time I was reading this, I was also reading the 5,000-page novel The Luminaries on audio which also dared to only get good in the last few hours. (It is not really 5,000 pages but truly it might as well be.)) The last 75 pages packed about five emotional wallops in a row. I was relieved. Because at least I could recognize in there a book that some part of me would have loved at some time. Even if now I found it all a bit much and not at all balanced. My present self cares very much about pacing, it seems.

Those emotional wallops are Patchett's bread and butter. Sometimes she only gives you one, sometimes she throws so many at you she might as well be the ball machine at tennis practice. They are twists but also not twists. Sometimes they feel earned and powerful. Sometimes they feel schmaltzy or manipulative. It is, apparently, very much about who you are in a given moment, at a particular time.

The me of right now, well, she is over it. I can't deny that Patchett is so good at what she does. (Except for that very slow first 200 pages of State of Wonder which I really can't defend. I think everyone else was right about that one.) No one else pulls off such consistent emotional pummeling.

Oh except maybe Emma Donoghue whose new galley I just started reading. Donoghue loves an emotional wallop but I will take it if there are lesbians. (And I am pretty sure there are!!)

Anyway, if you are a Patchett fan you will probably like Tom Lake! It has its charms, though it's not nearly as serious as some of her other books, which feels weird because it's set during the summer of 2020. I have notes. But it will breezily float you along through its story, and if you love Our Town and summerstock love affairs and romanticizing life on a farm, then you will be fucking delighted.

It has, happily, not been a billion years since I last sent a newsletter so I do not have too many new books I loved to update you on. Partly because I am EXTREMELY behind and am still reading August galleys even though it will be August in a week. Ever since I switched to reading galleys based on release date I have never been this behind. But also I just am still not loving a lot of things, so it's a tightrope walk. And all the Patchett only put me more behind.


There are still good books though. Here are some.

Lucky Red
The heart wants what it wants. Saddle up, ride out, and…

The queer, feminist Western has been popping up more and more but this one is by far my favorite of the bunch. It really feels its setting, it knows how to give us some adventure, and also embraces the way so many Westerns focus on outlaws and outcasts. And most women who were outcasts at that time were prostitutes, as is our protagonist Bridget. There's intrigue and suspense, there's love stories, and it's also quite sexy. I just had the most fun with it.

Starve Acre
An atmospheric and unsettling story of the depths of gr…

Hurley is really carving out his place as The Folk Horror guy in Northern England. I really enjoyed Devil's Day, and this is a very solid entry even though it's in a subgenre I often don't like (grieving couple is sad about their dead child). Also that makes two of those this year that are excellent, along with the fantastic Monstrilio. Definitely a slow burn. While reading it I thought how much it felt like a good indie horror movie of our present moment. Turns out it is about to be one, good job whoever thought to adapt it!

Crook Manifesto (Ray Carney, #2)
Colson Whitehead continues his Harlem saga in a novel t…

And last but certainly not least, the venerated Colson Whitehead is back with Crook Manifesto. I re-read Harlem Shuffle so that I could remember things, but also because I thought it would be fun. And it was. (On audio, Dion Graham reads, A+.) I was glad I did, too, because the books really can go straight into one another. We truly are so lucky that he is writing us a whole trilogy of this. This is my Star Wars. They are so fun and yet so bleak, so hilarious and so full of human frailty. That is always what I've liked best about Whitehead's work (along with his ridiculously good sentences) and I am really reveling in these books. I have missed this book ever since it ended.

Maybe I'm not totally out of my slump, but that's a good sign, no?

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