Reflections on the self-examined life
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
By Ann Patchett Bloomsbury, 306pp, $29.99
ANN Patchett’s Australian readers will probably know her as a novelist, an author of finely observed, morally complex fictions, written in a restrained style that builds slow and delivers knock-out emotional blows with impressive economy of expression.
This collection introduces her to us as an accomplished author of nonfiction. Patchett has worked for decades as a writer for publications such as The Atlantic, Gourmet, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, all of which are now easily available to anyone with access to an internet connection, but would have been much more difficult to access during Patchett’s most prolific years as a freelancer.
This book collects articles and essays from different stages of her career, including an inspiring piece about her latest endeavour, running an independent bookshop in her home town of Nashville.
Patchett turned to nonfiction when she was in search of a new day job to support her fiction writing, and began with a 250-word book review for Seventeen magazine (a piece she remembers re-writing repeatedly to please her editor) when she was 25. This work soon became something real in itself. She moved on from Seventeen to a series of increasingly prestigious publications, and found enviable freedom as editors recognised her abilities.
Not only writers but just about anyone will sigh with jealousy at Patchett’s account of the time she called her editor at Gourmet when she was worn out ‘‘ after months of overlapping houseguests’’, and told him ‘‘ I wanted to check into a fancy hotel by myself for a week and never leave the property’’.
His response: ‘‘ Brilliant! I love it.’’ The account of her sequestered stay at the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air, where she read a mountain of short stories and snacked on artistically arranged fruit by the pool, is romantic, complete with a drawn-out courtship, spontaneous flights through driving snow to attend bedside health crises — and, crucially, arguments and struggle.
The title essay focuses on how Patchett eventually came around to the idea of marriage after years of shying away from it, and Karl appears in other pieces too — we get to know them as a couple as they reconcile after a break-up on a trip in a recreational camping vehicle, fall in love with a dog, and come close to self-destructing in Paris in a piece that would perhaps be unbearably crushing if the happy ending wasn’t known in advance. Karl is not Patchett’s first husband, and the collection also includes accounts of a short, very unhappy marriage and divorce in her early 20s.
There are two pieces about Patchett’s dog in here, and these deal most directly and in the most affecting way with love and loss. The death of Rose, a mongrel terrier who was ‘‘ loyal and brave and as smart as a treeful of owls’’, hit Patchett ‘‘ harder than the deaths of many people I have known’’, she writes. In a story with the drama and passion of a grand romance, Patchett recognises Rose at first sight as The One, ‘‘ my dog of all the possible dogs in the world’’, and all but snatches her from the little girl who had intended to adopt the dog, provoking tears. ‘‘ Sometimes love does not have the most honourable beginnings,’’ Patchett admits, ‘‘ and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It’s everything in between we live for.’’
The book begins and ends with pieces that are deeply concerned with spiritual questions, and show the influence of Patchett’s Catholic upbringing on her approach to life and