Before Ann Patchett achieved fame and financial stability as a best-selling novelist, she spent years supporting herself writing nonfiction, first for Seventeen magazine, later for a variety of publications including The Atlantic, Vogue and Gourmet. So though her new book of nonfiction, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage may seem like a departure for her, it’s actually a return, or maybe a retrospective, featuring essays written from 1996 to 2012.
In her fiction, Patchett is known for creating deeply imagined other worlds, but in these 22 essays, she explores “a life lived close to home.” Moving back and forth in time from her childhood to the present day, Patchett writes about everything from the aftershocks of multigenerational divorce to the deeply domestic pleasures of dog ownership; she recreates the stops along her own determined path of becoming a writer (with stints waitressing and teaching to support herself) and reflects on the unexpected and life-altering delight of opening a bookstore in Nashville. Brimming with stories of the people who shared and shaped her journey, Patchett’s collection, Kirkus says, “is a joyful celebration of life, love and the written word.”
Patchett’s personal essays are notable for their candid, forthcoming nature; the stories she shares—full of insights and advice—are told with a kind of conversational musing. Patchett makes creating that sense of easy intimacy (as though she’s talking privately with a good friend) sound simple: “I use my own voice, and I’m a good conversationalist,” she says. “The great talent of my life is friendship, not writing. I’m a great friend. My ability to connect with someone deeply—I’ve got that. And when I’m telling a personal story, it comes from that same place.”
These essays may strike some as surprisingly personal for an author who’s known for being very private—an irony that Patchett readily acknowledges. “They must exist in some sort of balance. I’ve always wanted to write fiction that’s not personally forthcoming in some way. Yet I’m so willing to strip mine my own life for nonfiction!” That many of the pieces have been published before does nothing to lessen the sense of vulnerability from revealing so much in one place; in fact, reading them together deepens their intimacy, which is still a little hard for Patchett. “It’s absolutely true—pieces that didn't seem hard to publish individually are excruciating when I put them together...if you think of it as showing skin—in this dress, the arms are bare—this one has a low neckline, that one shows a lot of leg. Well, you put it all together, you’re naked.”
Still, Patchett says that her sense of privacy has been dramatically changed by opening her bookstore, Parnassus. And, she says, changed for the better. “I never would have published this book if not for the bookstore,” she acknowledges. “All these years I’ve had a big wall around me. I’ve tried to protect my time and my space and my mental privacy so I could sit down and write, and now I am a public figure, not only in Nashville (where I’m known as a spokesperson for the small bookstore), but also nationally. I’m the bookstore girl—I take a position, I stand on a soapbox—and it’s been good I’ve gone outside and it was good!”
The essay “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” one of the collection’s most recent ones, reflects a central theme that runs through the book, addressing the parts of Patchett’s life she’s “most deeply committed to”: her marriage, writing, friends and family. But the stories Patchett tells about these relationships are never simply happy ones (the marriage of which she writes was built on the “history lesson” of divorce), and it’s Patchett’s willingness to grapple with her own shortcomings, her honesty about the messiness, failures and sorrows in her life that make her hard-won successes and happiness so gratifying to read about.
“It is really hard to be married--and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. And it's hard to write, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” she says. The idea should be that work is hard, though the payoff is rewarding. “As a culture we get away from this idea; we want to win the lottery,” she adds. “Well, there are loads of things better than winning the lottery! The things you work and care for are really hard—and they are also infinitely more fulfilling than the winning ticket.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers Workshop.