My first Ann Patchett novel was Bel Canto, and I was hooked. I could see Renee Fleming as the opera singer and wondered why it had not been made into a movie. I assumed Patchett and Fleming were close friends.
Then I went on to read The Magician’s Assistant. It’s odd to describe a book in which nothing much happens as good, but it was. Seinfeld was about nothing much, and it was good too.
Then came that stinker of a book State of Wonder where a woman calls her lover ‘Mr Fox,’ and he calls her by her first name. I read about 20% of it and gave up on it. But I didn’t give up on Ann Patchett, and this book make me glad I didn’t. I can’t believe it’s a first novel. Maybe State of Wonder was really her first novel that she pulled out of a trunk after her name had been made.
This wonderful book is about something. It is about the unknowing of another person, no matter how intimately you live with them. No matter how you see them every day. The human spirit remains a mystery forever. The book is divided into three sections. In the first we meet Rose. Married and pregnant, she leaves her husband in California, gets in her car drives. She ends up at an old hotel that has been converted into a home for unwed mothers. The mother superior doesn’t believe Rose’s story about having a husband (all the girls claim to have had a husband), but she takes her in anyway. Rose is different from the other girls. Making herself indispensable in the kitchen, she keeps her daughter, and stays on at the home.
The second part is about Son, the only male on the place. All-around handyman and nice guy, he comes to love Rose. He is stunned when Rose agrees to marry him, and give the baby a name. It is his name on the birth certificate. He has secrets of his own, and he doesn’t like it when Rose gives the baby the name of his first girlfriend.
Part three is told by her daughter, Cecilia. Growing up in an home for unwed mothers is strange enough without being mistaken for one of the unwed mothers by the new girls. Cecilia tries to cope with a distant mother who tolerates her, but doesn’t seem to love her. For love she turns to her father and the nuns.
This lovely story, told from three points of view, succeeds on every level. I wonder why they don’t make this story into a movie. Not enough superheroes I guess, but all the characters are heroic enough for me.