Patry Francis is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I have never met her, but I became acquainted with her on-line in January, 2006, when she left a perceptive comment on a blog entry I wrote about James Frey, the lying author who deceived Oprah Winfrey and others with his fictional autobiography. Her blog,Simply Wait is one of the few blogs to which I have links on the right side of this page because I have found it to be consistently well written, provocative and interesting. Her blog writing is personalized, without being simple navel-gazing.
The back story on Patry is inspiring, and deserves a book of its own. She met the famous author, Marilynne Robinson, when Patry was a college student. Marilynne was living in Massachusetts with her husband, spotted a short story that Patry had written in a literary magazine and sent her husband to invite Patry to dinner. Over the years, Patry had never stopped writing, getting the occasional short story and poem published in literary journals, but also working as a waitress to make ends meet.
And then E.F. Dutton bought Patry's novel, The Liar's Diary and a few months ago, Patry hung up her waitressing shoes for good. Not only did Dutton buy the book, they're bringing out an audio version and having it translated into German, French and Dutch. Patry, after all these years is finally making it big.
The book is billed as a "pyschological thriller," although I'm not sure it needs the "psychological" qualifier. The narrator is the wife of a prominent physician in a suburban community, who, despite her social position works as a school secretary. Her seemingly placid life is upset by the arrival of Ali, the attractive new music teacher, who casually breaks hearts as skillfully as she plays her violin.
The narrator, Jeanne, winds up becoming a friend of Ali, her only female friend, but then the friendship begins to crack as she suspects Ali's relationships with her son and her husband. At one point in the story, Jeanne, reflecting on her own marriage, wonders "When exactly had the romantic veneer begun to peel away, exposing the void that was at the heart of our marriage?" But the veneer over the heart of Jeanne's marriage is not the only veneer that peels away, exposing a rottenness that she would rather not notice.
The book is very well written, as I would expect anything by Patry Francis to be. (She would know how to write that sentence less awkwardly.) And, yet, it's not quite a perfect book, much as I would like it to be. The ending is not quite believable. It depends on something on a cell phone and I don't think cell phones work like that; at least mine doesn't. I'm impressed again with how hard it is to write fiction and how almost fiendishly impossible it is to write good endings -- at least ones that meet my weird tastes.
I realize that to get published, by definition the author needs to write something publishers will buy. Publishers, being rational, will buy books they think they can sell. My tastes, being idiosyncratic, are not generally satisfied by what's on the best seller lists, so it would be chancey for authors to write or publishers to publish based on what appeals to me. So, I should probably just keep my opinions to myself, but how can I, when, as the famous aphorism says, "Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one?"
If I were advising Patry on her next novel (and she would be a fool to take my advice,) I would counsel her to concentrate more on describing relationships, which she does so well in her blog, and less in creating action. I recently read what is as close to the perfect book as I have read in a long time, Eudora Welty's short novel, The Optimist's Daughter, which won a Pulitizer Prize. Nothing much happens in the novel, but the relationships between the characters are shown so richly that the book is, nevertheless, a page turner.
You don't have to be Eudora Welty to be a successful writer, and despite my picking, Patry has written a good book which I can recommend. I gave it four stars.