I came to Bel Canto late because I don’t usually like best sellers. But Ann Patchett is a terrific writer. She really knows how to spin a plot, and creates wonderful images. I read her new book, State of Wonder on my trip back east. Is there anything more reassuring when one travels than to have an engrossing novel to turn to in the plane, on the train, in a strange bed in a hotel? This book is the story of a woman research scientist, Marina, who abandoned her initial career as an OBGYN intern after a traumatic incident. There are echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as she has to head to the Amazon to find and confront her old mentor and her past. I love the weaving of the story, the complexity of the questions it raises, and the believability of Marina’s transformation in the jungle.
After finishing it, I went to the library and got The Magician’s Assistant, which I just read. It’s another terrific story, this one about Sabine who has loved a magician and been his assistant for almost 40 years. The magician loves her too, but he’s gay, marrying her only after his lover dies, and he too is dying. He has told her his family died in a car crash, but she finds out after his death that his mother and sisters are alive and live in Nebraska.
The family has been watching their son and Sabine on a taped snippet from the Johnny Carson show like a talisman–a touch from the son/brother they never saw as an adult except on TV. Patchett takes us through that snippet twice, differently each time. The first time, Sabine is remembering how it was to be there. The second time she is as caught in the experience as they are. Both descriptions are works of art, too long to reprint here. Also in this book are wonderful, realistic dreams that made me jealous of their beauty and clarity.
The Carson segments reminded me of a poem I wrote about Johnny Carson and how central he was in my mother-in-law’s life. That I will print here, as you won’t be able to find it anywhere else. But you can get Ann Patchett’s books! Start with the hardcover of State of Wonder–this kind of writing deserves your support.
Carnac the Magnificent
Back when marriage was for keeps
my mother-in-law watched Johnny every night.
He came on after the 11 o’clock news, flickering his monologue
onto the desolate late-night air waves as Mabel sat
quilting in her empty living room.
Not much happened in her day
or was likely in the next, her grown son
set against fulfilling his promise,
her husband wheelchaired for life.
But Johnny made her laugh, his
shy, Midwestern corn, his string
of ruinous marriages,
the zany turban and outrageous animals.
One time she knit and sent
a red acrylic crotch cozy, plumped
with tissue paper, an exercise
that required some imagination as to the size
and shape of his unmentionables.
I wonder how many of those he got
from women knitting by the light of the TV
in Omaha or Wichita or Bend?
She never heard back.