Tuesday, March 11, 2014

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Throughout her writing career, novelist Ann Patchett has written scores of nonfiction pieces for magazines, writing that before the huge success of Bel Canto paid the bills. In this collection, she has pulled together 22 personal essays--the kinds of essays that, in an interview I recently watched, she seemed surprised readers found most engaging. While most of the essays are not, in fact, about her happy marriage, the theme that runs through them is the power and importance of love. Patchett writes about her love for her husband, her dog, her best friend, her father, her grandmother, a nun who taught her to read, opera, Nashville, writing, reading, the independent bookstore she owns in Nashville, even her surprise enjoyment of RVing. (Surprisingly, she mentions her mother's great beauty and desire not to be twice divorced several times, but she never really writes about loving her mother, the novelist Jeanne Ray).

The first two essays--one about why Patchett dislikes Christmas (it goes back to her childhood) and the other about writing--don't hint at the upbeat focus of most of the remaining essays. This fact notwithstanding, the essay on writing is quite interesting; indeed, it was the highlight of the collection for me, providing a detailed description of how Patchett works and the challenges she sets for herself with each new novel (by the way, she scoffs at the idea of characters taking over and writing a book on their own, an idea I have always found hard to fathom).

I found the entire collection pleasant reading, but I don't think I will remember many of the essays two weeks from now.

Favorite passages:
I showed an early knack for content. Only writing kept me from being swept into the dust heap of third grade, and for this reason I not only loved writing, I felt a strong sense of loyalty to it. I may have been shaky about tying my shoes or telling time, but I was sure about my career, and I consider this certainty the greatest gift of my life.

Set your sights on something that you aren't quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three. I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I'm doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage.

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