How Do You Feel About Errors and Clichés in Short Stories? or Some Thoughts On Ann Patchett’s Switzerland


I’m baffled to say the least. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story with more factual errors. Since I haven’t read a lot of Ann Patchett’s work, I was glad to see that the September issue of One Story featured her short story “Switzerland”. To be entirely honest, I found the title a bit odd. Did she really write a story about Switzerland? Or is it only a setting? I’m not sure why, but I immediately found it a bit problematic to give a story the title of a whole country. Just imagine I would set a story in Rome and call it “Italy”. Be it as it may, I was willing to give it a try and expected to enjoy it.

The story can be summarized quickly. Teresa is a seventy-something woman from LA who just retired. One of her children, Holly, has been living in a Zen community in Switzerland for over twenty years. Teresa’s only seen her very rarely. Her decision to travel to Switzerland and not only visit her daughter but be part of the Zen community for a few weeks, eat, live and meditate with them, is major.

The stay at the Zen community is a life changer and will help Teresa come to terms with things that have happened in the past. So far so good, and I’m pretty sure, I would have liked this story if there hadn’t been so many errors and clichés. And not just little things but big things that annoyed me a great deal.

What kind of errors and clichés you may wonder. Here goes

  • Teresa takes a plane from LA to Paris and then to Lucerne. Her daughter waits for her at the airport in Lucerne. The airport and her stay there are described in detail The only problem – there is no airport in Lucerne. It’s impossible to fly there.
  • When Teresa gets off the plane she comments about the cold. It’s icy – because, of course, we’re in Switzerland and it’s September. Let me assure you, unless you’re on the top of the Matterhorn, it will not be cold in Switzerland in September. Not even cool. Right now it’s still 100°F. It might be cooler in Lucerne, but not under 90°F.
  • The Zen community sells walking sticks that have been made from original Swiss stone pine. Hmmm. This tree doesn’t really grow in Switzerland. It’s a Mediterranean tree.
  • She mentions two newspapers Le Matin and Blick and then says Holly didn’t buy them because she can’t read German so well. Well – Le Matin is obviously French. But that’s not the only thing. Someone living in a Zen community would hardly read such trashy newspapers (the equivalent of the UK Sun).
  • Teresa sees goats and, of course, the goats look like they were waiting for Heidi or her grandfather.
  • And then, of course, Swiss chocolate is mentioned. Holly eats Toblerone.

One or two internet searches and these errors could have been omitted. Teresa could have landed in Zürich. The sticks could have been made of some other wood. She could have chosen between the newspapers NZZ and Weltwoche – far more believable in this context. Upon seeing the mountains she could have thought of Meinrad Inglin or Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. Instead of Toblerone, she could have eaten a Kägi fret. Or bought Ricola instead. And what if she’d stepped off the plane saying: “Wow, I never expected Switzerland to be this warm in September.” That would have been a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming changes in her perception. Alas!

I’m not normally hunting for errors  and clichés but these mistakes are huge and annoying. How did they get past the editor? Or are these just liberties she’s taken? If that were the case, I’m not sure why she would do that. Many readers enjoy discovering other countries via literature. As an author you have a duty towards those who are not familiar with a setting—don’t misinform them.

How do you feel about such errors/liberties?

Montreux, Lake Geneva, Anita Brookner and some French Books

I didn’t pick the best of days for my trip to Montreux, located on lake Geneva in Switzerland. Still, I’m sure you can see why it’s worth a trip even when the Jazz Festival isn’t on.

Montreux’s promenade along the lake is very famous. It is lush and green, with palm trees, Bougainvillea, Oleander and Rhododendron. At the same time you see snow-covered mountains in the background.

Many of the big houses bordering the promenade are fin de siècle buildings and house hotels and spa’s. All these hotels have what I call a “sanatorium style”, like the hotel in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.

Most people do not know that the old part of the city is high up on the hill. Quite a steep walk but definitely worth it.

Yes, I liked this sign on the house quite a bit.

You can see many picturesque buildings, small alleys, and a breathtaking view into the gorge and of the lake in the distance.

The steep gorge is in the middle of the old town, cutting right into it.  An icy cold mountain brook rushes down to the lake.

This statue of Freddy Mercury is located close to the Montreux market hall. It’s very lifelike. He used to live in Montreux and performed with the Queen several times at the festival. On his memorial day there is quite a lot going on every year.

Too bad that it was so cold and windy. When it’s sunny it’s nice to sit outside and have a drink.

While this isn’t a town I would like to live in, it’s too picturesque, too perfect – if you know what I mean – I still love to visit.

I felt like visiting Montreux after having watched Hotel du Lac which is set on lake Geneva. The movie is based on Anita Brookner’s eponymous novel. I have never read an Anita Brookner novel so far and would love to start with Hotel du Lac.

Do you have any Anita Brookner suggestions?

And since I was in the French-speaking part of Switzerland I bought a few books. Not all that many though. I’m very interested in Le sel by Jean-Baptiste Del Almo as he is compared to Virginia Woolf. Jean Molla’s Sobibor and Besson’s En l’absence des hommes – In the Absence of Men are the only ones which have been translated. Emma just reviewed Besson’s novel here. Sobibor is a novel in which an anorexic girl tries to find out what horrors lie hidden behind the word “Sobibor” which her Polish grandmother uttered just before her death.