Ann Patchett is just fine. It shines through in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, her accomplished collection of essays. Patchett’s fineness has been “your blessing and your curse,” as writer Lucy Grealy, Patchett’s best friend, once said.
Grealy was on to something. Patchett not only writes critically acclaimed novels, including State of Wonder and Bel Canto, winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner and Orange Prizes, but she’s also a fierce advocate for independent bookstores. As she writes in her essay, My Life in Sales, she bought and owns Parnassus Books, in her hometown of Nashville. The woman is nothing if not self-possessed. As Lady Gaga would put it, she was born that way.
“I was always going to be a writer. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve known anything,” writes Patchett in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life. In this longish essay, Patchett twines her journey as a writer with a generous and subtle lesson in literary craft. She doesn’t mind dropping names including Alan Garganus, Grace Paley, Elizabeth McCracken and Amy Bloom.
Nor is she afraid to trumpet her own accomplishments. Patchett tells how she published her first short story in The Paris Review at age 20. Seven years later, she sold her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars to Houghton Mifflin “for $45,000,” if you must know.
The author is as virtuosic as her Bel Canto heroine Roxanne Coss. Her secret isn’t waiting for the muse. She thinks “writers block is a myth.” What she believes in is hard work, a concept as unfashionable to admit as it is honest.
“Hard work is first and foremost hard, and whether or not it’s ultimately rewarding is very rarely the thing you’re thinking of at the moment,” Patchett writes in Love Sustained. But hard work’s been Patchett’s answer, whether she’s writing a novel, assuming daily care of her 94-year-old grandmother or training to enter the LAPD Police Academy.
Patchett trained shortly after the Rodney King riots, thinking to write a nonfiction book about life inside the LAPD and to bond with her father, a 32-year veteran on the force. She never did write that insider book, but she passed the entrance exam. “I am no great athlete, but at this point in my life I am a very good student,” she writes in The Wall. “This is the test and I have been studying for months.”
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage comprises 22 essays, all previously published, some expanded upon here. Some, like Tennessee are slight but also short, as though Patchett worked hard, did her best, then cut her losses. Her best essays focus on her family, her writing, her bookstore, her dog. In This Dog’s Life, she writes about finding Rose, “a mere slip of a puppy.” Dog Without End is Patchett’s loving elegy to Rose, who lived with Patchett for 16 happy years (that’s 112 in dog years).
Dog love is simple and pure. Human love is considerably more complex. In the title essay, the author, with an all but audible sigh of resignation, offers a glimpse into her childhood, growing up in a complicated family where marital breakups were the norm. “We weren’t the product of our parents’ happy marriages,” she writes, “we were the flotsam of their divorces.”
With little to go on in the way of model behavior, Patchett, in college, fell in love with the wrong guy. Even she has been capable of a lapse of judgement, or as she puts it, “I was an idiot.” She became so wary of relationships, she only agreed to marry her husband Karl VanDevender after 11 long on-and-off years.
As she writes in Fact Vs. Fiction, Patchett once prided herself on “the fact that people who read my novels. . . wouldn’t really know anything more about me than they had known when they started.” The surprise is the disarming degree of candor the essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage reveal when read in agregate, and Patchett is all the more admirable for writing them.
Happy marriage, compelling writing and all worthy endeavor requires hard work. That’s Patchett’s strength. And she does a fine job.
Ellen Kanner is the author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life , Faith and What to Eat for Dinner