For a book lover, there are few greater things than finding an author you love who is still alive. The thrill of falling in love with a new book is only made greater when you learn that its author is a contemporary who is still writing.
At least, that’s how I always feel about Ann Patchett. Thank goodness that Ann Patchett is alive and still writing.
Needless to say, I was excited to learn that Patchett had a new book coming out and I snatched it up as soon as I saw it in my local bookstore. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a little bit different than the books Patchett is known for. (Primarily she’s known for being the author of Bel Canto.) Novels are what’s made Ann Patchett famous but, as she explains in the introduction, non-fiction was how she made her money for a long time. And so here, she collects for her reader, some of her short, non-fiction pieces.
“My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive.”
In this collection, Patchett delves into the topics of writing, marriage, nuns, dogs, Tennessee, and more. The title essay tells the story of her marriage with her current husband but, really, the title could apply to the melding of these various topics, these various aspects of who Ann Patchett is. Or it could apply to the marriage of non-fiction and fiction, co-existing as they do in this one writer. Or the marriage of the solitary life of writing, mixed in with all the other parts of life that we live.
My favourite piece in this collection was undoubtedly Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. In school and out of it, I’ve read a lot of articles and books about writing. (It’s a great way to procrastinate from actually writing.) Some of them are helpful, many of them are frustrating, several are annoying. It may surprise you to know that my favourite full-lenth book on writing is Stephen King’s, titled On Writing. Patchett doesn’t provide much advice (though the advice she does offer is solid) but instead tells us what she did. And it feels like sitting down with a friend who sheepishly tells you, “Well, this works for me,” while inviting you to share what works for you. One of the points she makes that stood out to me was that writers essentially tell one story. We each have a single story that we want to tell and so we tell it over and over again in a myriad of ways. Upon reflection, Patchett’s novels do indeed share a theme – one story which they each tell. The brilliant bit, is that I never noticed until she pointed it out to me.
Another great essay is The Bookstore Strikes Back, where Patchett details her journey to becoming a part-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville. If you love your local bookstore, or you need a reminder of why you should love your local bookstore, read this one.
“…my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them by how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”