By Elizabeth Taylor
8:44 AM PDT, August 12, 2011
From the pleasant opera-loving terrorists in "Bel Canto" to the endlessly fertile Amazon women in her new novel, "State of Wonder," Ann Patchett creates magical stories. No wizards or vampires, no triumph over dysfunctional past, but rather an alternative universe where unlikely characters come together in a transformative way and make new, and surprising, lives for themselves.
The snakes andmalaria of the jungle seemed far away as we chatted in the Omni Chicago Hotel on Patchett's recent visit. The novel features a Minnesota research scientist dispatched to the Amazon to track down two colleagues: an office mate who has been reported dead, and her former professor, who is trying to create a drug that puts no expiration date on pregnancy.
Malaria, anaconda and scientific miracles of the jungle aside, what Patchett does best is tell stories about people. At the heart of the story is Dr. Marina Singh, who has retreated to the low-stress work of cholesterol research after she makes a mistake and incurs the wrath of her dynamic but cruel professor, Dr. Annick Swenson. Years later, on assignment in the Amazon to research the fertility drug, Swenson has managed to dodge the watchful eye of her Minnesota employer.
"I so understood that central relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson," explains Patchett. "That thing of finding a teacher who you loved and based your whole life on, and they don't remember you, and you know everything about them. Even if it's not a teacher who is mean to you, it's the same level of worship, wanting to please."
The buzz about "State of Wonder" is that it's a variation of the theme in Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," in which a foreigner is dispatched to return a wayward soul back to civilization. Perhaps the novella's vivid cinematic offspring can be credited for the association.
A more apt literary lineage for "State of Wonder" rests with Henry James' masterpiece "The Ambassadors," which explores with insight and sly wit the idea that a missing person may be happier where he is than where he has been. Sadly, though, these days a search for Henry James may lead straight to the discount table. As much as Patchett may love an association with the James novel, she isn't rushing to raise it. "'The Ambassadors' is a mood-killer," she says with a laugh.
Henry James aside, Patchett is full of praise for other writers, and particularly her writer friends. Her conversation is full of references to them — Maile Meloy, Liz (Elizabeth) Gilbert, Jane Hamilton — and her enthusiasm about writers and books has led to perhaps her most fantastic idea yet: opening a bookstore.
The nearest bookstore to Patchett, a Barnes & Noble, was a 20-minute drive from her house in Nashville. So, from the ashes of Borders' bankruptcy and undeterred by the shuttering of so many bookstores across America, she is teaming up with Karen Hayes, a veteran sales rep for Random House. Hayes understands business details, such as where to buy a cash register and how much income must be generated, that elude Patchett.
"I have money, and she has a vision," Patchett says with a laugh. "My breakdown is: She's the brain and the brawn, and I'm the flash and the cash."
The store, to be named Parnassus, has declared its mission as "a refuge for Nashvillians of all ages who share in the love of the written word." One can be sure that the store, like Patchett herself, will be warm, inviting and have a special spark. It will know what readers want, and need, before they know it themselves. Readers who enter its doors will trust Parnassus to lead them through what can be a formidable jungle of books.
Parnassus is scheduled to open this year, and Patchett will bring her star power to the store, attracting not only buzz but authors who will accept her invitation to a city better known for music than books. Patchett is breathtakingly frank about what her name will bring to the store, and she will still be what she has always wanted to be: a writer.
"I feel a little weird because Karen is going to business meetings and I'm floating around saying, 'I'm opening a bookstore!'" says Patchett. "She's going to run it; I'm going to gift-wrap in busy holiday seasons."
'State of Wonder'
By Ann Patchett
Harper, 368 pages, $26.99
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