This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett MarriageAs a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.

It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.

Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novel 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.”

Grace PaleyWe read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”

It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Parnassus Books

She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.

She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.

Met Opera“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”

“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”

And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.

The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

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27 thoughts on “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Claire. It’s an excellent collection. It was pitched to me for review as an autobiography and so I was disappointed when it arrived but by the end of it I felt that the essay form was a much better way of looking an a writer’s life.

    • I thought it fit together reasonably well, for a collection that wasn’t exactly written to become a collection. I never thought about it as an autobiography or even a memoir, another writer’s version of thoughts on writing which will always mean by association on life.

    • I think this is one of those collections that can be referred to and has a special place on the shelf next to other’s who have travelled far enough down the writing and life path to share a few learnings along the way.

  2. “A legacy of separation and divorce…” This element of the book would probably interest me the most. Sometimes you just have to accept that someone is not in your life, but remains in your heart. Ann Patchett review was a good read on “Woman’s Day”

    • It is interesting to follow her own changing perspectives and actions on relationships and there is a great question put to her early on in her life, which she never forgets, but responds upon first being asked with:

      It’s more complicated than that

      And by the end she will reveal that indeed it is not more complicated than that pearl of wisdom shared with her long before, that took many years before she was able to comprehend its simplicity and truth. It was one of the gems, so I didn’t share it!

  3. I love Ann Patchett’s novel but haven’t read any of her non-fiction yet. I will be checking this collection out soon. Lovely write-up.

  4. Thanks very much for this review, Claire. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Interesting contrast between this cover and the bright red and orange stripes on the North American edition. I love the point about how important it is to give your full attention to a person who’s suffering. The story of Parnassus Books is fascinating, too – long live independent bookstores and independent people.

    • Thank you Sarah for your thoughtful comment.

      Yes, the two covers are very different, apart from the main feature being the text. I wonder which edition Ann Patchett preferred and whether or not she had any influence over them, it seems writer’s rarely have much say regarding their book covers.

      I really enjoyed what she and her classmates learned from Grace Paley, not just about writing, but character, the character that we are ourselves, how fortunate they were to have such guidance and inspiration.

      I’d love to visit Parnassus Books, must add that to the bucket list!

  5. This really sounds like an interesting book and like Patchett is a fascinating person. Your review made me want to read this book even though I don’t normally read such collections so I’ve added it to my wish list.

    • Sometimes there are standout collections and I think the fact that each of these essays has been able to stand on its own two feet within the pages of another publication gives it a certain strength and universal interest that makes for easy yet informative reading. Love it when someone considers reading something outside their regular scope. I hope you so.

  6. I’ve read some of her wonderful essays, and I was so taken with ‘State of Wonder’ that I want to read almost everything she’s written (okay, so I’m a little late to the Ann Patchett party). The last contemporary writer who had a similar effect on me was Richard Powers. On the theory that one good recommendation (thank you for yours, btw) deserves another, ‘The Time of Our Singing’ was the book that hooked me. Of course, this being the Year of Reading Women, you might feel compelled to wait ;-). Happy International Women’s Day.

    • I just know you will love this volume of essays Deborah and thank you for the Richard Powers recommendation, I have indeed added it to my list and can’t wait to read it.

      Happy International Women’s Day to you too my friend. :)

  7. This sounds lovely, thank you. I haven’t read Ann Patchett but do have a copy of one of her books somewhere on my shelves. I’ll read it first and see if that makes me want to get to know her more.

    • I think her essays have a kind of universal interest that is almost separate from her fiction, she spent her entire writing career writing for magazines to support her other writing and as such touches on subjects that are of universal interest, I’m not actually a huge fan of her fiction, but really enjoyed this collection. She has an exceptional voice.

  8. Lovely, Claire, and I’m glad to learn more about this one from you. A few months back, a friend sent me one of her quotes – a pretty excellent reflection on forgiving ourselves for being imperfect and devoting ourselves to writing the books we’re able to write. It’s been one of my go-to quotes ever since, and now I’ll put the rest of the book on my list. Thank you!

    Hope all’s been good for you this winter…

    • I am sure you’ll find many more inspirational quotes in this collection Tele, but it sounds like the right one found you when you needed it.

      We’ve had an exceptionally wet and not at all cold winter, which for me was fine, as I am perhaps more acclimatised to the damp than the dry cold, but oh the blossoms of March and the return of the relentless blue sky has everyone promenading and smiling, so happy to be fully into the new season and all that it will bring.

      I hope Spring brings forth what you are now ready for. :)

    • Cool, it’s been a long time since I won an award, thanks Kimberly, I shall thank you in person one day when I make it to Matera!

      Yes, it is a little like the French books, off white or beige was definitely in vogue in 2013, look at The Luminaries, The Goldfinch etc

  9. I love Ann Patchett and have this on my to-read list. Your analysis of the cover is great! Covers have always interested me aesthetically, but I rarely stop to think how their design might foreshadow elements in the book. That’s definitely going to be something I pay more attention to going forward.

      • Great piece on book cover design — thanks for the link, Claire. And I agree with you, Jennifer, I’m going to pay more attention to this in future, too. I’ve just heard about a new book (coming out in November) that analyzes the covers of Jane Austen novels over 200 years: Jane Austen Cover to Cover, by Margaret C. Sullivan (http://www.quirkbooks.com/book/jane-austen-cover-cover). Sounds fascinating to me.

      • Wow, that sounds fascinating, I can’t wait to hear what you make of it. Now that you’ve read the 20 irrefutable theories, you’ll have an even more informed perspective. And what which kind of cover they will choose for the book? The image in the link looks like a coffee table book cover, I wonder if that’s what they are going for?

      • Good question about the cover of Jane Austen Cover to Cover — I don’t know, but I did hear the author say she isn’t sure if that’s the final cover or not. Must be a particularly interesting process to go through — deciding on a cover for a book about book covers. I was intrigued to see that only one of the Austen novel covers included in that image was one I recognized (the Penguin Threads cover of Emma).

      • I wonder if she has any influence over the cover, irony of ironies. :) Even Elisabeth Gilbert doesn’t decide her own covers, though she scored a coup recently by getting her publisher to agree to asking her fans to choose between three suggested covers and they came out in favour of Gilbert’s favourite, not that chosen by the publisher!

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