Find Solace in the Familiar:
Novels by Favorite Writers
THURSDAY, JUNE 3, 2021 -- During the pandemic, many of us turned to books, my personal stress reliever, for relaxation and entertainment. In search of diversion and solace, we've sought the familiar: our favorite book genres and authors.

A recent article in The New York Times even noted that the interest in previously published books was leaving new authors in limbo. I can personally vouch for the trend. I've lately opted for as-yet-unread older works of some of my preferred authors rather than seeking the output of new-to-me novelists and biographers.

There's something comforting--and reassuring--in returning to the familiar as we seek a "sure thing" to provide a respite from the chaotic current landscape. And there's a history of employing bibliotherapy--reading books as a form of therapy and healing--to reduce anxiety and stress.

Does anyone doubt the value of a good read as a positive mood-changer? I don't.

Most recently, my go-to authors have included Alan Furst, the master of evocative, mood-setting, World War II fiction, and Anne Patchett, she of the best-selling, character-driven novels.

I recently finished Furst's latest, Under Occupation, the 15th book in his well-regarded Night Soldiers series. The 2019 novel, set in Occupied Paris in 1942, chronicles the exploits of a journalist and novelist named Paul Ricard. His chance witnessing of a Gestapo attack on a spy sends him on a journey and the scribe-as-witness-to-history must undertake a more participatory role in the war. Ricard is cool, calm and logical in the face of Nazi-created crises. The likeable Ricard is committed to fulfilling his mission in a low-key manner. As the story unfolds, you'll also find yourself wondering about the fates of several sympathetic resistance operatives.

For those who cannot imagine drawing comfort from a war-based novel--and Under Occupation is so historically accurate that it could be a dramatic chapter in a history book--be assured: Furst's work has very little violence, although there's always that background tension that was a constant for those living in the occupied territories during the war.

Like Furst's other works, Under Occupation is well-written and well-researched. As important, it's an intelligent, enjoyable and satisfying read. As I noted in a 2017 column, "Furst's 'you-are-there' thrillers will keep you involved until the very end."

Ann Patchett's books have been among the most reliably entertaining novels I've come across. Over the years, I've spent many a happy hour engrossed in works such as Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder and Commonwealth. So I was naturally eager to read her latest, 2019's The Dutch House.

A best-seller with mostly good reviews, it features a dysfunctional family haunted by the disappearance of its matriarch and the fallout from the patriarch's marriage to a woman clearly more interested in his historic Pennsylvania mansion than being wife or stepmother. It has a wealth of promising storylines: how living in The Dutch House spawns family memories; a life-long obsession when two members are literally cast out; how a shared love of real estate bonds a father and son; and the close relationship of a brother and sister.

It seems to be fertile territory for an author as skilled as Patchett, whose way with lively characters and fluid dialogue have impressed me many times over. Unfortunately, they do not quite add up to a solid fictional package in The Dutch House.

Danny and Maeve Conroy, the youngest and oldest siblings, are the protagonists. The book is told from Danny's perspective. Frankly, I think it would have been more interesting from Maeve's point of view because she is a much more active and engaging character. There is also a bunch of peripheral folks with odd names who I had trouble keeping straight.

Patchett has said she threw away her first draft of The Dutch House and completely rewrote the novel. She said she had issues with how the story's villains were portrayed, which may explain her rather benign treatment of those whose behavior caused lifelong pain for the Conroys. To my mind, this also resulted in a rather dubious ending.

The Dutch House left me wondering about its widespread commercial appeal and critical acclaim. The lives and interactions of Maeve and Danny, for example, didn't particularly interest me. They spend a lot of time sitting in a car parked near The Dutch House and it seemed as if they were "stalking" their old home. I wasn't in the vehicle as they talked, but I felt as claustrophobic as if I were there beside them as they rehashed the same issues over and over.

You may get more mileage from The Dutch House than I did. It's a relatively fast read and I think you'll know early on if the Conroys are a family that you want to know better.

And in case you're wondering: Patchett, who admits to basing an important home in Bel Canto on a real edifice, insists there is no Dutch House in real life. "It [only] exists in my imagination and in the reader’s imagination," she says.