By August 4, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Giving Credit to “Liars”

Last week my library book group discussed Ann Patchett’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars.  The main reason we decided to examine this book is that several members of the group had greatly enjoyed reading and talking about Bel Canto, another of Patchett’s novels.  (Many of you may be familiar with Bel Canto, since it’s become a favorite of book groups across the country.)  The Patron Saint of Liars, however, never approaches the high level of ambition and imagination found in Bel Canto, and the book group agreed that reading it was a disappointing experience.

One of the problems, we thought, lies in the book’s structure.  It is divided into three sections, with each one offering the perspectives of a different narrator — a woman, her husband, and her teenage daughter.  The difficulty occurs because the woman is the protagonist, and after her section is completed, we never get back into her head.  So, during the sections where her husband and her daughter continue the story, we don’t know what the woman is thinking or why she makes the choices she does.

The group members found Patchett’s approach to telling the story extremely frustrating.  There was so much that was never explained.  Was this ambiguity intentional, or just carelessness on the part of the author?  Because we were prevented from understanding the motivations of the characters, most of us found them unconvincing.  One participant, however, defended the novel by saying that sometimes in real life, we don’t know what a person is thinking or why they decide to do certain things.  But, others asked, even though a particular condition is familiar in our own experience, is the same situation acceptable in a novel, where we are expecting the author to provide some form of clarity or meaning?

The teenage daughter is portrayed as extremely smart, but there are important aspects about what’s taking place around her that she doesn’t seem to grasp.  How can it be that she fails to figure these things out, when they seem so obvious to the reader? 

In the end, is this the sort of book that leads to a satisfying discussion?  If you’re thinking “probably not,” you would be wrong.  My group members had every bit as much fun talking about The Patron Saint of Liars as they did when we discussed Bel Canto.  That’s because books with striking flaws and weaknesses just naturally seem to generate strong opinions — exactly what every discussion leader is looking for.  And it’s on that basis that I can wholeheartedly recommend The Patron Saint of Liars as a “surefire” discussion choice.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

1 Comment on "Giving Credit to “Liars”"

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  1. carolyn.dubiel@gmail.com' Cari says:

    Sorry to hear you didn’t love the book – I just finished it and loved it. I’m fine with ambiguity – the book didn’t strike me as weak at all. But I agree that sometimes the book you didn’t love makes the best discussion.

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