Before Ann Patchett began scoring spots on the bestseller lists with such novels as Bel Canto and State of Wonder, she made her living for a number of years writing nonfiction, mainly magazine articles.
Some were ephemeral — in her new book's introduction, she mentions pieces for Seventeen on such subjects as "How to Decorate Your Locker" — but, as her skills and reputation grew, many of them were smart, funny and wise personal essays.
If you missed them the first time around, when they appeared over more than a decade in publications ranging from Bark to Byliner, from Gourmet to Granta, 22 of them are gathered in Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
In her fiction, Patchett has not been overtly autobiographical (although she certainly was in her memoir Truth & Beauty: A Friendship). In these essays, she gives us engaging accounts of her life as a daughter, a writer, a friend, a businesswoman, an enthusiastic dog owner and a most reluctant wife.
One of the book's best essays, and one any aspiring writer should read, is The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. It's often contrarian — Patchett scoffs at "write what you know," noting that one of the things she enjoys most about writing is doing research about unfamiliar subjects — and more astringent than comforting. Determined to be a writer since childhood, she was wildly lucky in the writing teachers she had as a college student at Sarah Lawrence: Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley and Russell Banks. Patchett was a talented student, but Banks threw down a meaningful challenge when he told her that her stories were polished but shallow: "You have to ask yourself . . . if you want to write great literature or great television."
From Sarah Lawrence she went to the prestigious MFA program at the University of Iowa, then to a teaching position — and then to a job waiting tables at a TGI Friday's in Nashville, Tenn., her hometown. There, she says, "with a couple of cheeseburger platters balanced up my arm, I began to teach myself how to write a novel."
Along the way she learned over and over again that writing is hard work, and writing well is harder — and that is the point she wants to make. "If we could learn everything we needed to know about writing fiction by seeing it masterfully executed, we could just stay in bed and read Chekhov."
Another standout essay is The Wall, Patchett's account of trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy. She doesn't intend to become a police officer, and, although she tells herself she might be gathering material for a book, that's not the reason either. Her father, whom her mother divorced when Patchett was 5 years old, had just retired from the LAPD when the Rodney King incident and the subsequent trial and riots occurred, shattering the entire department's reputation.
During his career as a detective, Patchett writes, her father "made the connection between the Tate and the LaBianca murders, and went into the desert for Charles Manson. He picked up Sirhan Sirhan the night Bobby Kennedy was shot and worked the investigation that followed. He serve his city, and attended the funerals of friends who had also served their city." Her tryout for the academy, a grueling two-day series of written and oral exams and physical challenges that include jumping over a 6-foot wall, is her salute to him.
In This Dog's Life, she writes about the unorthodox method by which she acquired her beloved dog, Rose, a charmer of uncertain heritage but definite opinions. The childless Patchett is bemused by people who think her love for Rose is displaced baby hunger: "Who can't look at a baby and a puppy and see the difference? You can't leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you're cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in the park, or wait by the door for your return, and, as far as I can tell, they know absolutely nothing of unconditional love." Dog Without End is a quietly devastating story of what it means to lose a dog like Rose.
Several of the essays deal with a strain of divorce that runs through several generations of Patchett's family, including her own brief and bleak first marriage. In the title essay, she writes, "I had about as much coaching on how to conduct a happy union as a rattlesnake."
But she meets a man, a handsome, kind, bright, devoted surgeon. She comes to love him but believes the only way to avoid a second divorce is not to marry. At his first proposal, she writes, "I shook my head. 'That's the whole point,' I said. 'I'm the only person you're going to find who isn't going to marry you.'
"And I didn't. For eleven years."
What happened during those 11 years, and how they finally wed, is a surprising and touching tale.
But telling such tales is Patchett's job, and she came to it early, as we learn in the essay How to Read a Christmas Story. It begins, "I have never liked Christmas. In my family, there were happy Thanksgivings and tolerable Easters, but Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor."
The main reason for that, she writes, is that she is a child of divorce. Her mother moved her two small daughters all the way to Nashville, following the man who would become her second husband — leaving Patchett's father back in Los Angeles, heartbroken at losing his kids.
Late one Christmas Eve, when Patchett was about 12, he called and said he wanted to read her a story. It involved an orphan girl and a coveted gift and a band of hungry gypsies. "Oh, what I wouldn't have given to be that orphaned narrator!" Patchett writes. "Wouldn't it be so much better to be an orphan, not to feel that you were letting one parent down by being with the other parent on Christmas?"
But as time goes on, she learns more from that little story, and from the power of storytelling and what it would mean in her life. "There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.