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The Best Ann Patchett Books: A Reading Guide

If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably heard of Ann Patchett. Not only is she a bestselling, award-winning novelist who just released a new book (the wonderful The Dutch House), she owns a popular Nashville independent bookstore, Parnassus Books. But did you know Patchett has a backlist full of other great titles? And that she’s also written nonfiction? Whether you’re a Patchett newbie or a fan looking for more of her books, this guide to Ann Patchett books will help you figure out where to start reading her work.

Who Is Ann Patchett?

Patchett is an award-winning novelist and bookstore owner. She was born in Los Angeles in 1963 and grew up in Nashville. After attending Sarah Lawrence College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Patchett published her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, in 1992. She has since published seven more novels and three works of nonfiction. In 2011, she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville. Though I have enjoyed Patchett’s nonfiction, I think of her primarily as a novelist. She understands how to let characters reveal themselves over time and it’s a great pleasure to just sink into the world of a Patchett novel.

Where to Start With Ann Patchett Books

cover of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett1. Bel Canto

Bel Canto is not Patchett’s first novel but it’s the one that brought her wide readership. It won the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The novel is set in an unnamed South American country at a party thrown in honor of a visiting Japanese businessman. Because he’s a fan of opera, the party includes an appearance by a famous American soprano. But when members of a terrorist group crash the party, mistakenly believing the country’s president will be there, the party takes an abrupt turn. A standoff develops in which everyone placed in this unusual, tense situation discovers more about themselves and one another. I suggest starting with Bel Canto because it displays Patchett’s talent for juggling multiple character arcs and complicated relationships. It’s beautifully written, intense, and moving. (And she’s really good at writing parties!)

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2. Commonwealth

This is my favorite of Patchett’s novels. It starts with another wonderful party scene—this time a boozy christening party that kicks off an affair and leads to two divorces, a newly blended family, and a cross-country move. She’s said that Commonwealth was partly based on her own childhood experience, and it has a realistic, lived-in feeling that makes you feel like you’re reading about the lives of people you know. The novel unfolds over the span of 50 years and it’s fascinating to watch these characters change, fall apart, and come together again. If you’re looking for an absorbing novel that feels at once classic and modern, this is for you.

cover of Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett3. Truth and Beauty

This memoir tells the story of Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, a writer who died of an overdose in 2002. As a child, Grealy had cancer which required the removal of part of her jawbone and several reconstructive surgeries. Of course, this had a huge impact on her life, which she writes about beautifully in her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face. Patchett and Grealy met in graduate school and had a close, mutually dependent relationship. Truth and Beauty is the story of that friendship. It’s a beautifully written account of the love between two friends and what happens when one of them has problems the other cannot fix. You’ll also get to know Patchett as a person before you check out her other books.

Must-Reads

cover of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett4. The Dutch House

Speaking of feeling both modern and classic, Patchett’s most recent novel has a fairytale-esque quality that will sweep you up. Siblings Danny and Maeve live in a large mansion (the Dutch House of the title) with their real estate mogul father. Their mother left the family when they were very young and hasn’t been heard from since. Into the ordered, particular world of the Dutch House comes Andrea, a new stepmother who will end up banning Danny and Maeve from their own home. How this happens, and how Maeve and Danny try—and fail—to move on with their own lives unfolds through flashbacks as Danny reflects on his life. The novel is a deceptively simple, perceptively written look at obsession, loss, regret, and family ties.

5. State of Wonder

When one of her colleagues died in mysterious circumstances, pharmacologist Marina Singh is sent to a remote part of the Amazon rainforest to find out what happened. Another colleague, Dr. Swenson, is still there but proves hard to find. Marina must confront her own memories and past relationships in order to discover the incredible, potentially world-changing research the two have completed.

cover of The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett6. The Patron Saint of Liars

Patchett’s first novel is set in a Kentucky home for unwed mothers. Rose Clinton comes to St. Elizabeth’s and stays even after her daughter is born, making a life for herself and the baby among the nuns and patients who come and go. But Rose has a past she left behind, and not even St. Elizabeth’s can keep it out.

7. What Now?

This short work of nonfiction is based on a graduation address Patchett gave at Sarah Lawrence in 2006. It’s about her own experience of graduating and wondering “what now?” and is a lovely, quick read.

Extra Credit

8. Run

Many of Patchett’s novels unfold over years, and there’s a pleasure in slowly getting to know her characters. In contrast, Run takes place in Boston during one 24-hour period. Twins Tip and Teddy are Black and have been raised in a white household. Their father, the former mayor of Boston, has high expectations for their futures. But an argument and an accident call into question everything their family is built on.

cover of The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett9. The Magician’s Assistant

Sabine is an assistant to her husband, a magician—so this novel is about a literal magician’s assistant! When he dies, and Sabine discovers he left her a final trick, she sets out to learn his secrets. She’s joined by members of his family, who she thought had died but are revealed to be not only alive but named in his will. It turns out her late husband had plenty of secrets, and Sabine is determined to reveal them all…

10. Taft

When the mother of John’s son moves away with their child, the jazz musician is devastated. Into his life comes Fay, a new waitress at his Memphis bar, and her brother Carl. John finds himself drawn to both of them and especially to stories about their recently deceased father, Taft. Soon, John is recreating his own version of Taft’s life in this moving meditation on fatherhood.

11. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This blend of memoir and essays tells the story of many of Patchett’s most formative experiences: her unhappy first marriage and her later, much happier one; how she became a writer; the decision to open a bookstore. Patchett is a sympathetic narrator who makes even the smallest moments feel meaningful, and that’s definitely on display here.


Looking for more about Ann Patchett books?

Check out this book club guide to The Dutch House and a previous reading pathways post about Patchett. Also note that Ann Patchett digs Book Riot’s reading challenge! And when you’re done with Ann Patchett books, you might want to check out everything written by her friend Elizabeth Gilbert.

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