Ann Patchett: ‘We’re almost embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange’

Ann Patchett is the author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including State of Wonder and Commonwealth . Bel Canto (2001) won the Orange prize, the PEN/Faulkner award and was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle award. She has also written celebrated works of nonfiction, including This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage , and co-owns a bookshop in her home town of Nashville, Tennessee. Her new novel, The Dutch House , is a masterful depiction of ruptured family relationships, the power of sibling bonds and the nature of home.

The protagonists in The Dutch House become obsessed with their childhood home after they’re turfed out by their stepmother. Do you think people too often get fixated on the past?
So many people just get stuck in their childhood and shoulder that burden through everything. It becomes their defining feature in life. Danny and Maeve [the novel’s main characters] chew on their loss of the house: they make it a fetish. I see people doing that and I just think, You can’t still be feeling this loss. You’ve made this your hobby.

Property is both a sanctuary and a burden in the novel. Was that something you set out to explore?
I hadn’t consciously set out to explore that and yet the further along I went the more I could see it and the more I could think about the burden of things. I am somebody who feels the burden of things. I think I would have made a swell nun.

The novel is also about memory: whether we can only ever view the past through the prism of the present . Do you think memory is ultimately unreliable?
Yes, I think that memory is almost a living thing for every person. I was in downtown New York on September 11 with a friend and we were there at the World Trade Cent er when it fell. We had this huge life-changing day together. Several years later, we sat down and we talked about that day and it was as if we had been on different planets. We remembered every single thing about the day differently. Memory is unreliable and yet we are completely positive that we are right. Give me a story about a rabbit who’s had a very hard time of it and I will be weeping One of the novel’s central questions is how we deal with grief . Do you think culturally we are ill-equipped ?
We don’t have enough time to deal with our grief. We’re almost embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange. We have two things absolutely in common: we’re born and we die. And everyone goes through those two experiences in a remarkably similar way, with a few medical details to separate us. But the facts are the facts: we weren’t here and then we’re not here again. But we can’t bear to think about it.

You have said in the past that you can’t write […]

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