Ann Patchett’s novels tend to share some common themes, among them the importance of love, particularly love of community or family; the destructiveness of deception or lying; and the grief that accompanies the experience of loss.
The Patron Saint of Liars
A dominant theme of Patchett’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, is deception. When the pregnant Rose Clinton decides to have her baby at St. Elizabeth’s, a Catholic home for unwed mothers, she resigns herself to being a liar, but actually she began living a lie when she realized that her marriage to her child’s father, Thomas, was not God’s plan for her. Driving from California to Kentucky, she lies to everyone she meets, and at St. Elizabeth’s she joins a community of liars, telling the expected falsehood about her baby’s father—that he is dead. Her deception continues as she helps conceal a friend’s labor and denies hearing the prophecy that her roommate’s baby will die at birth. She allows Wilson Abbott, known as Son, to believe she is unmarried and thus to marry her so she can keep her baby. Her lies eventually force Son to ask their daughter, Sissy, to conceal her age from Thomas Clinton; suspecting that Thomas is Sissy’s biological father, Son fears losing custody. In fact, Rose refuses to lie only when the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion are involved; she will not lie to God. Thus she marries Son in a civil ceremony, though he must lie to the magistrate about her missing birth certificate.
A second theme of this novel is the importance of community. Patchett typically creates settings that are isolated from the everyday world, then brings together diverse groups of people who develop a sense of community, even family. Rose adored her mother but gave up their relationship in self-imposed penance for lying. She finds unconditional maternal love again in Sister Evangeline, whom she seems to love in return. Her roommate, Angie, becomes the sister Rose never had—the first of Patchett’s sister surrogates. The handyman, Son, is another damaged soul who has found a sense of belonging at St. Elizabeth’s. Drawn to Rose, who is as emotionally distant as his dead fiancé Cecilia, he marries her; he adores Rose’s daughter, whom Rose names Cecilia. With Sissy, as she prefers to be called, Son establishes a genuine, if unique, family; Sister Evangeline and neighbor June Clatterbuck constitute their extended family.
The theme of loss and resulting grief is also part of The Patron Saint of Liars. Son left his home in Tennessee after his fiancé drowned because he had been unable to save her. His wanderings parallel Thomas’s journey to find Rose, whom Thomas has never divorced. Coming to Habit, Kentucky (the town’s name perhaps an indication of Patchett’s fascination with puns), Son met June, who directed him to St. Elizabeth’s, where he became an accepted part of the community.
Patchett’s novels typically introduce some elements of the supernatural, and that is true of this first novel. St. Elizabeth’s was built on the site of a healing spring, which disappeared years earlier. Sister Evangeline is clairvoyant, and in dreams Son is visited by his dead fiancé.
In Taft, Patchett again develops the theme of family or community, focusing the action on a group of Beale Street bar habitués whose world seems entirely separate from the rest of Memphis. John Nickel, the first-person narrator, is a popular jazz drummer who has given up his musical career in order to maintain contact with his son, Franklin, the only person he loves wholeheartedly. Although Franklin’s mother, Marion, has taken him to Florida, they and Marion’s family (the Woodmores) constitute Nickel’s entire biological family. With the regular bar employees (especially Wallace the bouncer), however, this African American bar manager has developed another kind of family. In contrast, although the Tafts have maintained geographic proximity, the death of Levon (the father) has destroyed their emotional closeness. Through flashbacks, Patchett reveals their dramatic personality changes after Levon’s death forced them to move to Memphis and live with wealthy relatives.
The theme of loss is significant in Taft. In different ways, all the major characters have experienced loss. The Tafts are grieving for their father. Vulnerable because he misses his son, Nickel understands the Tafts’ grief; thus he pities the waiflike Fay, hires her (though he suspects her of lying about her age), and allows her brother Carl to hang out in the bar. In a confused mix of pity, friendship, and physical attraction, Nickel attempts to become a surrogate father to Fay and later to Carl; the result is nearly disastrous for everyone.
The dominant theme in Taft is responsible love. Until Franklin’s birth, Nickel had never loved anyone but himself; he adores his son at first sight, however, and soon learns that with such love comes...
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