I’ve finally returned to Ann Patchett–I read Bel Canto years ago and really admired her fiction writing (talk about plot and character development!)–mostly because I was curious to find out what her non-fiction was like, but it took me two years to begin reading This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage. Patchett has been getting a lot of press lately. There’s her bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus, which will be featured in the New York Times this weekend (12/11/16. Here’s a link), and her newest book, Commonwealth (here’s a review), and so I’ve been thinking a lot about Patchett and her writing. This Is a Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays that have to do with care and love (and sometimes the absence of both), and how writing from a life lived shapes both an essay and a writer’s–and reader’s–understanding of experience. Patches writes in the introduction: “Many of the essays I’m proudest of were made from the things that were at hand–writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived closer to home” (10).
One of the essays I am particularly drawn to is “The Getaway Car,” subtitled “A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life.” This is Patchett’s “ars poetica,” her story of how she became a writer, with specific descriptions of her mentors at Sarah Lawrence College and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, along with a listing of caveats to the aspiring writer: “If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said,’I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!’ you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker” (28). She continues with practical yet often disregarded advice: “If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you want to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say” (29). And then this incredible wisdom: “Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because this is key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life” (29). This is all within the first few pages of the essay. The following pages describe in engrossing details Patchett’s experience in college and graduate school, and then her early years writing for women’s magazines while she attempted to find time to write her first novel. For her, the ability to write was her “getaway car,” the means to find a way to support herself and to leave behind the unhappiness of her family life. She’s been quoted here admitting that most of her fiction comes from feelings of entrapment in her difficult family–of course, she needed to find a way to escape, and writing became her metaphorical vehicle. The essay ends with more stunning advice: “Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world” (60).
Many of the following essays are equally powerful–“The Sacrament of Divorce,” the story of her doomed first marriage, “The Paris Match,” a fight she has with her partner (later husband) that erases the memory of eating at one of the most exclusive restaurants in Paris, “This Dog’s Life” and “Dog without End,” a completely non-sentimental yet deeply affecting story of the death of her beloved dog, “On Responsibility,” about the connection she feels to her grandmother, and how caring for her shaped Patchett’s life, “The Wall,” an amazing telling of Patchett’s trying out for the Los Angeles Police Department (her father was a captain in the LAPD who retired after thirty years of service right before the Rodney King beating and riots), and then the story of Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty which was banned across much of the South, and how it came to be a freshman read at Clemson University despite vicious protest. Close to the end of the collection is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” which tells of her relationship with Karl, and by this point the reader is completely rooting for the two of them to (finally!) get married. The final essay is “The Mercies,” Patchett’s story of her relationship with the nun, Sister Nena, who had been her first grade teacher and who had taught–or tried to teach–the resistant Ann how to read. Patchett’s compassion and care are moving. Even nuns are subject to downturns and upheavals–here, their convent is dissolved, sold by the diocese to real-estate developers, and the bonds between these women who have been together for decades as brides of Christ no longer hold. Patchett is there at the end, offering her presence to Sister Nena as a response to her being alone in the world.
This is an excellent collection, even if there is no through-line beyond Patchett’s own attention to care and love, and well-worth the two years I waited to read it. I would recommend dipping into the book bit by bit, or even reading it out of order, but certainly as a guide for turning one’s life into writing, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage deserves a prominent place on one’s bookshelf.