Whether Ann Patchett discourses about the merits of opera or recounts her adventures in a rented RV, her compelling new book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harper, 320 pps.), hums with the pitch-perfect prose evident in her best-selling novels Bel Canto and the recent State of Wonder.
This 2013 compilation of previously published essays brings to the fore her varied career as a freelance writer. At the start of her career, articles for SEVENTEEN and bridal magazines helped fund her fiction. Over time, journalism became its own force, encouraging a work ethic that would bolster her creative writing and provide broadening experiences, such as her trek through the Peruvian rainforest for Gourmet.
Though the Tennessee-based author never set out to write a personal memoir, this collection, organized chronologically and tied together by the major events of her life, resembles one. Despite the book’s title, however, it is only partially concerned with marriage, let alone happy ones. “The Sacrament of Divorce,” which chronicles Patchett’s realization that her first marriage would end, illustrates the pain of two people at odds with themselves and each other.
Patchett does find her fairy-tale marriage, but she had to know herself well enough to recognize her other half when she saw it. She finds her soul mate in Karl VanDevender, the doctor she marries after an 11-year courtship. In the title essay, she suggests that a marriage of two well-matched and committed people is happiest when surrounded by satisfying work, hobbies and friends.
But Patchett is more interested in the nature and benefits of commitment in a larger sense than she is in analyzing the attainment of marital happiness. The essays explore the ways in which commitment to work, friends, spouse or a beloved dog — Patchett’s primary relationships — can yield the richest bonds. She applies the notion of complementariness — of two halves creating a more functional whole — to these relationships; they complete and augment her, and she clearly offers the same benefits to them.
From this perspective, “marriage’” has multiple meanings. The collection suggests that a satisfying existence is to be found in the happy marriage of work and relationships. A more apt rubric for the book might have been This Is the Story of Happy Life.
The majority of the collection falls into the category of life advice from a friend, wife and business partner. (She is part-owner of Parnassus, an independent bookstore in Nashville.) The piece I found most absorbing and inspirational is written from her perspective as a writer. “The Getaway Car,” the only essay in the collection to explore her writing life, details the experience of penning her first novel, The Patron Saints of Liars, and working as a freelance writer to finance her creative efforts. Her suggestion that writing an hour a day is the secret to fiction-writing success is a call to arms to any aspiring author.
Ultimately, reading This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is like sitting down for coffee with a wise old friend. With humor, candor and an eye for critical detail, Patchett has created an essay collection that is at once personal and universal.