TORONTO (CNS) — As of late February, U.S. literary novelist Ann Patchett was "four pages" into her next book. Although it was early in the creative process, she said the yet-to-be titled novel could well prove to be her most Catholic work to date.
Patchett, whose 2016 novel "Commonwealth" is still generating a lot of positive buzz among North American reviews and book critics, has earned a large readership for her stories that generally involve bringing people to strange or unfamiliar settings only to experience the stirrings of a new and tenuous family.
For example, her debut best-selling 1992 work, "The Patron Saint of Liars," recounts the story of California native Rose Clinton, who leaves her home and husband to take up residence at St. Elizabeth's, a Kentucky home for unwed mothers run by a Catholic order of nuns.
As a married woman and the mother of a newborn daughter, Rose is an atypical resident of St. Elizabeth's who, despite qualms about living a dishonest life, still has room for a residing if doubt-filled faith.
Early in the book, Rose describes some inner turmoil: "Every candle I lit, every long wooden match I gave a dime for and struck against the bottom of the coin box, making a small disruption of the sulfur and light in the church, was by way of reminding God that I was still here, waiting. ... I thought that by constantly placing myself in God's presence, he might be more inclined to think of me sooner rather than later. I did not ask for more than my share, one sign. That which was by rights mine because I believed and was so ready to listen."
Patchett followed up her debut work with novels "Taft" (1994) and the "The Magician's Assistant" (1997), which furthered the author's general theme of finding short-term sanctuary and nurturing relationships in unusual environments.
Her 2001 novel "Bel Canto," however, took this theme one step further. The book, which captured the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize, brings together a small group of international travelers, diplomats and business people in an unnamed South American nation to attend a party featuring noted American soprano Roxane Coss. The group is taken hostage in the vice president's home by a small group of terrorists seeking social justice for an oppressed people. A standoff ensues, and suspense is sustained by the efforts by the hostages and terrorists to survive an ordeal almost certain to end violently.
As with many of Patchett's works, there are sympathetic treatments of priests, sisters and other Catholic characters. "Bel Canto" describes service-bound Father Arguedas, who not only prays for reconciliation and deliverance for the captives, but also arranges delivery of sheet music that allows Coss to continue singing arias to entertain both hostage and captor.
The music, Patchett writes in "Bel Canto," "swept over them so that even Catholics who no longer practiced their faith, and the non-Catholics who came along because there was nothing else to do, and all those who had no idea what she was saying, and the stone-cold atheists who wouldn't have cared anyway, because of her singing they all went away feeling moved, feeling comforted, feeling, perhaps slightest tremors of faith."
Patchett's 2007 work "Run," set in a 48-hour period in Boston, also touches on the family-building theme in its treatment of a widowed politician's relationship with a natural but troubled son, two adopted sons and a third adopted daughter. The narrative also has a place for an aging priest, Father Sullivan, who not only appears to have the gift of healing via laying on of hands, but also expresses what is likely the author's own musings on the faith.
Confined to a nursing home, a reflective Father Sullivan ponders his calling. "What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy. We had been brought forth from nothing to see the face of God and in his life, Father Sullivan had seen it miraculously for 88 years. ... It would be possible to overlook just about anything if you were trained to constantly strain forward to see the power and the glory that was waiting ahead. What a shame it would have been to miss God while waiting for him."
Other than describing herself as a writer who happens to be Catholic, rather than a "Catholic writer," Patchett said there is something of a vocation to her choice of career. "Yes, I saw writing as a vocation, something bigger than myself that I was called to."
To get a greater sense of her faith influences, Patchett refers people to the essay, "The Mercies," from her 2013 collection, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage." The essay focuses on Mercy Sister Nena, one of Patchett's elementary school teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.
"When I was a girl in Catholic school, I was open to the idea of being a nun, a mother, a wife, but whenever I closed my eyes and listened, the voice I heard was consistent: Be a writer," Patchett wrote. "It didn't matter that 'writer' had never been listed as one of our options. I knew that for me this was the truth, and to that I found the nuns to be invaluable examples. I was, after all, educated by a group of women who in essence jumped ship, ignored the strongest warnings of their fathers and brothers in order to follow their own clear direction. They were working women who had given every aspect of their lives over to their belief, as I intended to give my life over to my belief. The nuns' existence was not so far from the kind of singular life I imagined for myself, even if God wasn't the object of my devotion."
It's clear that many of Patchett's ideas about family and community stem from the Sister Nena experience.
"Maybe what rubbed off over the years was more than faith," Patchett said. "Maybe the reason I'm so comfortable with Sister Nena and the rest of the nuns is that I spent the majority of the waking hours of my childhood with them. Where influence is concerned, timing is everything."
When not working on a new book, Patchett keeps busy as co-founder of the independent Parnassus Books in Nashville. Opened in November 2011 in response to the closing of "big box" book sellers there, Parnassus has taken on a life of its own. Patchett and partners encourage browsing and strive for a homey sense of community at the Nashville store. For a writer whose works often touch on transient haven or refuge, the Parnassus ambiance seems especially well chosen.