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Unreliable Narrators: An Evening with Ann Patchett and R. Eric Thomas

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Postcards From Palestine

I had thought parking at the Church of the Redeemer on a Monday night would be easy, but the alarming glare of headlights in the December blackness proved me wrong. Baltimore’s modernist hippie church regularly hosts large cultural events of all kinds and boasts two gigantic parking lots. Tonight it was a scrum of cars circling to no avail, triple parked in alleys Grateful Dead show style. It was an Ann Patchett revival of sorts, our one chance to hear directly from the nationally known author, a congregation of saints and sinners, book fans all.

A few weeks earlier I had RSVP’d for the free event hosted by The Ivy Bookshop featuring the Nashville-based author (and co-owner of Parnassus Books) in conversation with Baltimore favorite R. Eric Thomas. I don’t go to a ton of literary events because attending art shows is my job, but this one felt essential because I have devoured all of Patchett’s books and count them among my favorites. I was shocked to realize that about a thousand other Baltimoreans felt the same way.

In locally made organic knit hats, we emerged en masse from the cold into the Belluschi stone and wood chapel. I skipped the clogged eventbrite check-in with bookshop staff and made a beeline for the side door leading to the nave. Walking down the aisle in search of a seat under soaring wooden buttresses was thrilling, but confusing. There was no room at the inn. Were there really no single seats? And who were all these women in my age range?? The place was slammed. 

In the front row, a few empty reserved seats (apparently one was for R. Eric Thomas’s therapist who was featured prominently in the subsequent discussion), and I finally tucked myself into a partially obstructed view pew in the transept. I guess I would be looking at the back of Ann Patchett’s head? At least I would be close enough to hear.

 

After the introduction from Emma Snyder, owner of the Ivy and organizer of the event, Ann Patchett and R. Eric Thomas appeared on the dias. They joked about getting married after walking down the aisle together and there was good energy in this place, a collective sense that we were doing something important and potentially memorable. The audience was packed with women who read books and the occasional male escort; they were keen on experiencing Ann Patchett. Live. In. The. Flesh. Expectations were high and the speakers were buoyed by the energy.

The talk began with a lot of witty repartee and expressions of mutual adoration. Clearly the two authors had clicked, two old friends who had just met for the first time. Good for them. They’re both clever, funny people, and successful writers, but I knew that before I arrived. 

I waited to glean a few priceless nuggets of inspiration, the nuts and bolts of writing. I wanted to hear where the ideas come from, a demystification of the experience of being a professional and rather famous writer, rather than the stereotypes that proliferate. The obligatory celebrity anecdote sweetens the deal, and since both authors have published substantial amounts of personal essays and memoir, I was curious about the distinction they make between writing fiction vs. nonfiction, and if there really is one. 

I was glad to be there and, while their personal love fest made me feel like a voyeur after a while, I learned a few things and felt entertained in a direct way that renders television cursory and inauthentic.

 

In life in general and in an Ann Patchett novel, the meaning placed on past events and relationships is fixed by the retelling of a story, and it changes depending on who tells it.
Cara Ober

Things I learned at the Ann Patchett and R. Eric Thomas book talk on December 11, 2023:

• Ann Patchett does not have a smartphone. 
• Ann Patchett does not text or scroll, but she sends and receives email.
• Ann Patchett has a treadmill desk and finds walking and writing to be a productive combination.
• Ann Patchett gets her news from the newspaper. 
• Ann Patchett does not watch television.
•Ann Patchett does not engage in social media, but she creates videos for Parnassus’ social media accounts, where she recommends books.
• Ann Patchett can sing two songs really well, but this does not make her a good singer.
•Ann Patchett thinks writing essays is an effective way to enter into writing. She started out writing for popular magazines and, as her primary editor moved from Seventeen to GQ to Vogue, her own magazine writing career also moved up and ahead. She acknowledged that this career path and elevation plan was not relevant to anyone looking to replicate her success in a way that felt humble but also not helpful to aspiring writers. Sorry, kids! Don’t try this at home!

I didn’t learn that much about R. Eric Thomas from this talk except that he is a huge Ann Patchett fan, his therapist is a valued member of his professional social circle, and his mother is a photographer. On stage, he is naturally funny and loveable, but I knew that because we once met for coffee and BmoreArt reviewed his play, Safe Space, in 2020. 

In retrospect, I feel a little bit guilty about the uneven emphasis, but overall I think the talk was centered around Patchett’s new nationally-acclaimed book, Tom Lake, with Thomas’s newest book, Congratulations, The Best is Over!, more accessible to a Baltimore audience. So from the start, the focus was really on Patchett, as a guest to Baltimore, rather than Thomas, who is a local, and I think that makes sense.

Full disclosure: I have read Ann Patchett’s new book, Tom Lake, which I purchased brand new in hardback about a month ago. I have read a lot of Thomas’s magazine writing, but not read his new book (yet), so it’s possible that my focus was on Patchett because I am more familiar with her work.

 

What do people who don’t write do with their memories?
Ann Patchett

On Tom Lake, I am still processing my reactions to it, which are complicated. When I read a novel that I really love, the entire world falls away and when I’m not reading, I’m thinking about the characters and plot, wondering what’s going to happen next, completely ignoring family and friends, just nodding and pretending I’m there.

I read Tom Lake quickly, in about three days, and I plan to read it again soon for one main reason: I am trying to reconcile myself to an abrupt ending that is a real fire cracker, so much so that it almost felt tacked on and unnecessary. The conclusion of Tom Lake is like placing a sizzling appetizer at the end of a long meal, serving it up hot after everyone has had their coffee and dessert. 

This is not exactly a spoiler alert, although I suggest NOT reading the ending first, if you’re the kind of reader who does this. I would never but I know people who do. The grand finale changes everything you have come to know and understand about the story, and makes the book significantly more political and complex, but was also a bit disappointing to me. Not the subject, which is an issue that I care about deeply, but that it felt like an afterthought and I think that’s asking a lot of the reader. Perhaps after I read it again I will change my mind, but as of a first reading, I wish this plot transforming device was placed closer to the center of the book, so that the issue could resonate more fully within the unfolding action and character development.

Who knows, though? Perhaps the best books are the ones we need to reread, ad infinitum, and that’s why they are so popular. To compare, my favorite book by Patchett is still Commonwealth, a novel about a loveable, but fucked up, blended family who experiences a shocking tragedy, but one that occurs closer to the center of the book, so you experience the reactions of different family members throughout the second half of the book. This gives the reader the opportunity to compare and contrast the disparate ways, both healthy and unhealthy, that human beings process loss. 

These two Patchett books are actually quite similar, and I will allege that the characters in all of her books are meditations on certain repeated themes and personalities. I feel an affinity for these flawed but well-intentioned characters, but I think Patchett’s gift for innovation comes from plot structure, how a story functions in reverberating and disparate layers. In both Commonwealth and Tom Lake, Patchett explores the limitations of art within the lives of individuals, focusing on the compromises made by specific artist characters and their struggles with their own desires for success coupled with pervading imposter syndrome.

Both books center female characters who are lapsed and/or failed artists, according to them, anyway. These are unreliable narrators who have given up on art-making and writing, in order to focus on family, jobs, therapy, and healthier and more balanced “normal” lifestyles. In Tom Lake, this character is Laura, a former actress who has changed her name to Lara, and in Commonwealth, it’s Franny, a beautiful English major and would-be writer. Both women seem mostly satisfied by their decision to focus on motherhood and family instead of art and ego, but there is always a twinge of regret. These characters are still recovering from their bout with the art world, and their scars have been earned through journeys led by vulnerability and curiosity.

In both books, the main female characters wind up in romantic relationships with men who are “quantifiably successful” artists, but also–abusive, narcissistic, alcoholic vampires. I’m not sure if it’s fair to paint all successful male artists this way, but it’s certainly a stereotype for a reason. 

I would be curious to know if Ann Patchett identifies more with the ‘arts adjacent’ female characters or the artist-monster-males? Or perhaps she is both, and they embody different aspects of her personality and creative process. This was the conversation I wanted to hear more about that night, and to be fair, I guess it’s the conversation I always want to have in the work that I do writing about artists.

 

One real treasure in Tom Lake is the depiction of a family hunkering down together during the pandemic of 2020. Laura/Lara, the mother, is the central character and she is so happy to have her three grown daughters home with her and her husband on their cherry farm for a few peaceful months. Laura/Lara knows that, under no other circumstance, would she ever be hosting her three adult children in seclusion. She knows it won’t last, and treasures this stolen time. It’s bittersweet, because the daughters are missing out on the messy life experiences that we all need to have in our early twenties, but they’re stuck on a farm with their parents. It could have headed in a “Little Women” direction but, thankfully, does not.

Where it does go, though, is to the mother’s own youthful indiscretions. You find out she was briefly a successful actress with a starring role in one Hollywood film. You learn about her love affair with another actor, a beautiful man who goes on to become famous with a capital F, a movie star, a legend who has died a tragic death. 

The daughters knew the outlines of the story, but now that they’re adults with time on their hands, they demand to know more. The plot bounces back to the past and to the pandemic present smoothly, in alternating chapters presenting an ever-darkening story, and the reader experiences Laura/Lara’s sexy misadventures through her own imperfect memory, compared with conversations about it with her daughters that are more cagey. You get the sense she is protecting them from something, but also that she is applying wisdom of a certain age to these memories, seeing them from new angles and perhaps being kinder to herself than she was back then.

During the talk with R. Eric Thomas, Ann Patchett mentioned the way our memories are fixed and altered through the telling of a story. She spoke specifically about a love affair that happened long ago at an art residency that she loosely based the seduction scene from Tom Lake on, saying, “I thought those pieces of me would stay forever, but they didn’t.” 

She went on to explain that our emotions, our fight-or-flight reactions, the immediate reason for a story, fade with time. However, “Every time you tell it again, you’re shaping the story. You can’t go back to that moment every time, but you’ve made it into something. And there it stays forever… What do people who don’t write do with their memories?”

There is such power in the story-within-a-story approach taken in both Tom Lake and Commonwealth, (and in Bel Canto, The Dutch House, and other Patchett novels) where the reader trusts the narrator at first, but grows unsure about them after witnessing the mutable aspect of memory. 

In life in general and in an Ann Patchett novel, the meaning placed on past events and relationships is fixed by the retelling of a story, and it changes depending on who tells it. Patchett manages to present these multiple perspectives simultaneously with the weightless grace of an acrobat who confidently plucks our attention, then questions and stretches our trust as far as it might go, teasing us out onto the ledge with her.

Sometimes the trapeze breaks and the characters fall. Their hard landing, wounds, recovery, choice to heal or not, and potential redemption is encompassed within the story itself but also in the act of its telling, or in our case, reading. The author’s super power is to create a plot that steers you gently toward forgiveness, especially for those who are clueless and imperfect, creating a space for decades to unfold and wisdom to be accrued honestly.

Stories matter. Clearly they matter a lot to the thousand or so people who showed up on a December night to hear Ann Patchett and R. Eric Thomas speak. As authors, artists, readers, and attendees of cultural gatherings, we are all actively participating in the process of making meaning in our lives through storytelling. How we choose to fix these memories in time, to assign value and transform them into art, is an ever-beckoning invitation.

This is the sparkling gem I left with that night, after the authorial love fest ended and people lined up to support a beloved local bookshop with their purchases, and I went back out into the cold darkness to see if my illegally parked car was still where I had left it.

 

Photos courtesy of the Ivy Bookshop

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