More than halfway through this collection of essays I begin to think that one of the most important characteristics for a successful memoirist must be good humor. Patchett wrote most of this collection of nonfiction essays earlier in her career for different publications. She supplemented those with a couple longer, deeper pieces written later: “The Getaway Car” and “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” “Dog Without End,” and “The Mercies,” all stories about the great loves in her life.
Together the essays comprise a history. We meet her dog, her grandmother, her husbands, her father. She recalls Lucy Grealy, the subject of her story of friendship called Truth and Beauty. We keep reading because she is a nice person and we like her. She writes well, but that isn’t all. She is irrepressible. She has character.
I am finished with the book of essays now, and I have to say I am relieved. I am relieved that her title story, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” is in fact, not only about her happy marriage, but also of her earlier failed marriage, a marriage that shook her—shook some sense into her. I used to be sad that such spectacular failures were necessary, but most of us have them hidden away in a closet somewhere, ready to be unearthed and examined again for any further shards of wisdom. Mine doesn’t hurt as much now, but there is usually still an involuntary tightening of my lips before I smile, with chagrin.
Which makes me think again of Ann Patchett and her good humor. The stories she tells in this collection remind us that there are moments in a life we wish we could share with others. Patchett is not just sharing her story, she is showing us how it is done. Readers, real readers, are always going to be interested in writers. We yearn to know how they do what they do, even if it would never occur to us to do the same. But Patchett is so generous with what she knows and what she does that we can see how she does it. One thing that runs through the whole book, every essay, is that she does not take herself too seriously. She takes her craft seriously, but she tends to forgive herself and others when we don’t quite live up. Or makes a funny joke about it.
When she mentions her mother was beautiful, the kind of beautiful that made people stop her in the street to compliment her, I had to find a photo online. I feel like I haven’t seen beautiful, naturally beautiful, in such a very long time I don’t even trust myself to know it when I see it anymore. Her mother is beautiful, it’s true. She has the kind of effortless-looking beauty that doesn’t pain one to look upon. But it didn’t make her nicer or wiser than anyone else. None of us gets it all.
Oh yes, Ann Patchett can write. This is a magnificent collection, and I recommend it heartily to everyone, anyone. It is for teens, it is for adults, it is for readers, it is for writers. Ann Patchett lives in the town where she grew up. She never had children. She spends a long time in school and a longer time sitting at her desk, writing. But somehow this book shows us the various ways in which the essential parts of our lives are not so distant. Love matters. It accounts for the joy and most of the pain that lingers.
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