Taking a journey through Ann Patchett's life
I have been an Ann Patchett fan for years. I have enjoyed the range and invention of her novels and even suspended disbelief as, in “State of Wonder,” she led me on an unlikely literary journey in the jungles of the Amazon .
I never knew her skill at nonfiction until I came upon her recent collection of 22 essays published from 1997- 2012, gathered in “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” (book from Harper; audios from HarperAudio, 11 hours, 35 minutes). I listened to all of the essays, some of them a second time and then bought the book so I re-read the many passages that spoke to me. Listening and reading, I found myself in evocative landscapes layered with meanings that lingered and phrases that stopped me with elegance, honesty, or playfulness.
Patchett’s introduction begins by describing how she came to nonfiction. Originally, she chose it because she had to find something less exhausting than waitressing to support her two basic needs: eating and writing fiction. Gradually she warmed to it, realizing she could apply to fiction what she learned from editors and experience.
Patchett was reluctant to gather her essays into one volume. And yet, she had to admit that over the years she’d been continually surprised by those who showed up to her book signings with tattered copies of the nonfiction pieces she’d published, telling her that they’d been comforted “when my grandmother died” or “when I got divorced.”
A friend finally persuaded her that the essays “deserve the chance to live together … inform one another.” And they do.
Patchett defines these essays as those based in “things that were at hand—writing and love, work and loss” and notes that they “reflect a life lived close to home.” I found they merged insight, humor, sorrows and delights that perfectly described how life is lived when recalled an inveterate storyteller.
Patchett voices her stories with precision in her writing and her reading. In both she knows where to place emphasis — sarcasm as she faces demands of nonfiction editors, disgust at her distant father’s Christmas presents of “dolls that were big and artistic and creepy,” and warmness as she expresses her gratitude to her writing teachers Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley and Russell Banks. She is authoritative as she offers her “veritable clearing house of practical advice” for writers in “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life.” Her gutsiness is palpable as she faces grueling qualification to become part of the Los Angeles Police Department to which her father belonged in “The Wall.” Don’t think for a minute that her essays are pleasant meanders, they may appear so because they are easy to follow, but they are carefully crafted. In “My Road to Hell Was Paved,” for example, she gorgeously pairs a relationship falling apart and falling in love with RV camping.
I bubbled along from one essay to the next, entranced by turns of phrase, drawn in by humor, surprised by her perceptions. At the end, I suddenly I realized the whole. Part memoir, part biography, all experiential, Patchett describes her entire life. She is the confused child of divorced parents, an enthusiastic dog owner and the heartbroken granddaughter of a failing elder. She is the reluctant bride when marrying for a second time and a reticent bookstore owner driven by the need of having an independent bookstore nearby.
Her metaphors are haunting and some gain even more strength because of the way she reads them. She speaks almost reverently, for example, of an original book idea that breezes around her head” like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame.” Her voice grows forceful and fanciful at once as she describes, “indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color.” Then her voice descends, “I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there with my own hand...” she pauses before finishing, “…I kill it.” And then she begins her defense, sorrowfully and apologetically, “It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page.”
While that may be true, Patchett’s essays leap from the page in a way that seems not at all one-dimensional.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.