Re­flec­tions on the self-ex­am­ined life

This is the Story of a Happy Mar­riage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kirsten Tran­ter

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

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