[13 January 2014]
Ann Patchett is a happy writer. She is a happy person, a rare enough species in this modern world. But a happy writer? Virtually unheard of.
If one theme emerges from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, it is Patchett’s persistent cheer. The only other person I can think of with said disposition is cookbook matriarch Claudia Roden, who in conversation with Tamasin Day Lewis admitted “Really I am always happy. Do we have a happy gene? ...I have never been depressed.”
While Patchett has been depressed at least twice (see “The Sacrament of Divorce” and “Dog Without End”), This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of 22 non-fiction pieces running the gamut from dogs to divorce, more than lives up to its name.
If you are a writer, or wish to become one, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes an excellent contribution to your pile of how-to books. Read “Nonfiction, an Introduction”, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life” and “My Life in Sales”. Try not to be envious of Patchett’s successful writing career. Take heart in her counseling against expensive writing M.F.A. programs and summer intensives filled with agents just dying to meet you—for a fee.
If you are not a writer, be glad you can avoid the above and just enjoy the book.
Discussing 22 essays in any depth is impossible. Instead, here I’ll focus on a few standouts. The aforementioned essays on writing are instructive for anyone involved in artistic pursuits or those interested in what the artistically inclined endure.
In “Nonfiction: An Introduction”, Patchett describes her early years as a writer. Waitressing and work as a line cook left her too exhausted to write, so she turned to freelancing for Seventeen magazine.
Working for Seventeen was less physically arduous than restaurant work, but constant calls for edits forced Patchett to become a fast, expert writer. “I was learning how to work for a magazine by shaping my writing, yes, but I was also shaping myself: it was my aim to be flexible and fast, the go-to girl.”
As her editors’ careers advanced, so did Patchett’s career: she freelanced for numerous magazines, among them Gourmet and The New York Times Magazine. These jobs financed her fiction writing until 2001’s Bel Canto became a best-seller, allowing Patchett her choice of assignments.
Patchett considers fiction her art, ever challenging, whereas an article is always easy. Yet intensive freelancing positively impacted her novel writing. Any ego was pounded out of her; any extraneous wording, no matter how graceful, was unceremoniously cut. She learned, she writes, to be a “workhorse”—sitting down and writing, for many writers that discipline is the hardest part of being a writer.
“The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life” recounts Patchett’s educational path to writing. Patchett was born wanting to write, and her talent evidenced itself early. Despite this, Patchett’s elementary school years were marked by reading difficulties. She blossomed during her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence, where her teachers included Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks. Banks told Patchett hers was a serious talent, but she needed to take ownership of it or she’d be writing good television. This comment, she writes, changed her life.
Patchett earned her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Iowa is considered the most prestigious writer’s program in the United States, with a famed faculty and an equally famous roster of graduates. So Patchett writes tactfully about her experience there. While at Iowa, Patchett gained a great deal of experience about writing and life, though very little of it from the classroom. “Iowa was where I learned how to tune my ear to the usefulness and uselessness of other people’s opinions.”
“The Sacrament of Divorce” and “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” discuss Patchett’s much-divorced parents, whose remarriages, stepchildren, and subsequent geographic upheavals made for a chaotic childhood. Attached to a Catholic school education, this led to deep guilt when she married disastrously at 24; in the “The Sacrament of Divorce” we see Patchett decimated by unhappiness both during her terrible marriage and afterward, having fled her marriage to go back home to her mother.
In the title essay, she describes meeting husband Karl, whom she dated for 11 years before consenting to marry. Karl, a doctor 16 years older her senior, wanted to marry immediately; Patchett, gun-shy, citing her family’s terrible track record, preferred never. Only when Karl develops near-fatal heart trouble does she cave, only to wonder why she waited so long, for their is, indeed, a happy one.
Dearest friend Lucy Grealy appears in “Fact vs. Fiction” and the unsettling “The Love Between the Two Women”, demonstrating Patchett’s
fallback good cheer: she doesn’t mind talking about Lucy, who died of a heroin overdose at age 39, in fact, “I love taking about Lucy.” Nor is she entirely fazed when a group of Clemson University alumni and students take grave offense at Truth and Beauty being assigned
to the entering class of 2006. The book—which none in this group have read—with its (assumed) lesbianism, drug use, and premarital sex, is
deemed “filth” and pornographic by its detractors. They feel its author, who has been invited to Clemson to speak, should be disinvited. Patchett, who has never reneged on an engagement, gives her speech, reprinted here as “The Right to Read”. She is shadowed by bodyguards.
“This Dog’s Life” and “Dog Without End” ably take one of non-fiction’s hardest corners: writing about beloved pets. Patchett writes so winningly of Rose, of what makes this 12-pound bundle of “Parking Lot Dog” so special, that the reader is completely captivated. So much so that when “Dog Without End” rolls around, over 100 hundred pages and 16 years later, the reader understands why Patchett is wheeling the now deaf, blind, paralyzed dog around Nashville in a stroller.
“The Mercies”, the closing essay, is about Sister Nena, who taught Patchett to read. The women lost contact for decades, getting back in touch only when Sister Nena cold-called Patchett’s home, soliciting funds for Patchett’s old school. The women became friends, if that can be said of a middle-aged, worldly writer and a 78-year-old nun who remains a tennis whiz. As worldly life pushes at Sister Nena’s door, she is forced to take on responsibilities never dealt with before: an apartment alone, a checkbook, credit and debit cards. Patchett explains these mysteries even as she frets over her former teacher’s choice of neighborhood.
She takes Sister Nena shopping at Whole Foods, even as the nun protests: a bag of dried pasta and a jar of premade sauce will suffice. Many readers will be amazed to find an individual both in the world and not—her first debit card at age 78?—while realizing hers is a dying way of life.
Arguably, so is Patchett’s. Her freelance work has taken her all over the world, from the opera houses of Rome to the beaches of Hawaii. She has stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and driven a motorhome through the American Badlands. She sailed the Amazon, did research for State of Wonder while freelancing in Peru. In a time when writers are no longer sent out, her book tours have taken her around the world.
For a variety of reasons, this kind of freelancing, for all but a scarce few writers, is over. Writers are no longer sent on all-expenses-paid trips to fine hotels or to pursue a newfound interest in opera: the money simply isn’t there. This makes This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage unwittingly elegiac, for it is unlikely we’ll see dispatches of this variety coming from younger writers, however talented.
the independent bookstore Nashville Patchett financed.