Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book Review: "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett

Many people ask me how I select the books I read. Sometimes they've been recommended by someone else whose preferences are similar to mine, or I've read enthusiastic reviews about them. In other cases, I've been intrigued by the title or even the cover. (Never underestimate the power of a stroll through a bookstore when you can find one.) But quite often, I choose books written by authors whose books I've come to love. There is a growing list of authors I'm constantly looking up on Amazon to see when their next book will be released, authors whose books I read sight unseen, unless they're a major departure from their usual work.

Ann Patchett is definitely one of those authors. I first became familiar with her after reading the marvelous Bel Canto, then read her earlier books and have devoured all of the books she has written since then, fiction and nonfiction. So I was intrigued to read This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of articles and other writings she has published in a wide variety of media, from The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times to Gourmet and Granta, even her introduction to the volume she edited for The Best American Short Stories collection.

Contrary to the title, this isn't just a book about marriage, although several of the articles touch on different aspects of her relationship with her husband Karl through the years. But many of the articles touch on other relationships—her brief, disastrous first marriage; her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy (which Patchett so lovingly recounted in her book Truth & Beauty; her grandmother; her dog; one of the nuns that taught her in Catholic school; even her relationship with her work. And still other articles talk about her need for and love of the occasional solitary vacation; her experiences trying out for the LAPD and getting to understand the RV culture; becoming the co-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville; and her love of short stories.

"Many of the essays I'm proudest of were made from the things that were at hand—writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home."

As always, Patchett's writing is thought-provoking, humorous, and, at times, tremendously moving. The articles aren't arranged in chronological order in the book, and they're written for different purposes, so it may take a minute to get your bearings for you to realize where in Patchett's life a particular essay is taking place. (In some she's married, in others she's dating her future husband; in some her dog is a puppy and in some her dog is elderly.) But Patchett always provides context for what she's talking about so it's interesting to get so many different perspectives.

There were so many instances in which I marveled at what Patchett had to say. Her use of language is so dazzling at times I had to re-read paragraphs or sentences to get the full extent of their power. In the title essay, for example, when she recounts the tumultuous relationship she and her husband had in the years before they were married: "I try to study our happiness so that I will be able to remember it in the future, just in case something happens and we find ourselves in need. These moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years, so that when love calls out, 'How far would you go for me?' you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, 'Farther than you would ever have thought was possible.'"

And one other example, from "Dog Without End," a beautiful tribute to her dog: "Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It's everything in between we live for."

I loved this book as much as I've loved Patchett's fiction. I feel tremendously fortunate to have gotten so much insight into her life, her mind, and her heart, and I think this will help enhance my enjoyment of her future work even more. If you like her writing, definitely pick this up. It's tremendously captivating, even if you choose to read it a little at a time rather than all at once. Don't miss out.

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