"This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" is not the story of a happy marriage. Not just one happy marriage, anyway. In her latest release, PEN/Faulker award winner Ann Patchett, best-selling author, co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., and prolific scribe on matters of the day, has collected a series of her previously published essays and woven them into a kind of narrative about the things we commit ourselves to — sometimes happily, sometimes less so. Always for life.
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Before she was a novelist, Patchett cut her writing teeth as a journalist — freelancing for Seventeen magazine, Vogue, GQ and the New York Times Magazine, among others. "The Patron Saint of Liars" launched her career as a fiction writer in 1992, but she continued to write essays between and among the publication of her next five novels ("Bel Canto," "The Magician's Assistant," "Run," "Taft" and "State of Wonder").
"Many of the essays I'm proudest of were made from the things that were at hand — writing and love, work and loss," Patchett writes in the introduction to "Happy Marriage." "I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home."
The earliest works here include a 1998 essay for Outside magazine about RV-ing through Montana. ("When the news talks about America's dependence on fossil fuel, it's talking specifically about me driving Minnie. I am the person for whom the Gulf War was fought and won.") There's a 1997 piece for Vogue about acquiring and falling immediately and permanently for Rose, her Portuguese Podengo puppy. ("Whatever holes I had in my life, in my character, were suddenly filled. I had entered into my first adult relationship of mutual, unconditional love.")
Parts of this collection fall a little flat, including a 2011 piece from Byliner magazine instructing budding writers on how to make it in Patchett's chosen profession — the one she knew she'd inhabit, she writes, by age 9.
Patchett isn't wrong when she tells her hungry readers, "If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say." But she's not giving us something she, alone, can say.
Her writing soars when she's risking the most — writing about her divorce at age 26 or her childhood holidays spent longing for a different reality. ("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 children don't get to pick their hardships.")
The strongest parts of "Happy Marriage" grow out of her friendship with fellow author Lucy Grealy, whose childhood cancer robbed her of half a jaw and shaped her life in ways both tragic and triumphant. "Truth and Beauty," which Patchett wrote about Grealy in 2004 — 10 years after Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face" memoir and two years after Grealy's death at age 39 — is at the heart of several of the essays here.
They are moving enough and reason enough to devote your time to this collection.
In 2006, Clemson University assigned "Truth and Beauty" to the incoming freshman class. "The idea was born of the book club," Patchett writes. "Since Oprah took the book club national, entire cities have decided to read a single book, high schools and colleges have picked one book as a way of bringing students together. Discussion groups are organized, papers are assigned, and then, if all goes well, the author is brought in to give a talk, do a signing, meet and greet."
A small but extremely vocal group of South Carolinians was not having it. Activists staged protests, took to the local media and otherwise agitated for Clemson to cancel the assignment and rescind their invitation for Patchett to speak. Their grievance was hardly a new one — sexual and antireligious references, drug use, inappropriate language within "Truth and Beauty." The book was "not in harmony with the values of South Carolina or the Clemson community," according to a full-page ad in the Greenville News.
(In a funny aside, Patchett recalls her sister quipping, "If it had been a couple of guys who met in college and saw each other through sex and drugs and illness, it would have been 'Brian's Song.' They would have made a Movie of the Week out of it and named the football stadium after you.")
Ultimately, the university did not cave to the protesters, and Patchett did not pull out. What grew from the controversy — and her appearance — was a beautiful tribute to Lucy, to friendship and to the strength and power of forging into the unfamiliar to find yourself.
Patchett's address to that incoming freshman class appears as "The Right to Read: The Clemson Convocation Address of 2006" in "Happy Marriage."
"Regardless of whether or not you're a student, it is never enough to rely on other people's ideas," she told the crowd of 3,000 that gathered to hear her speak. "You have to look at the thing itself and make up your own mind. That's what it means to study and learn. … There can be a fine line between obedience and laziness, and if you go through life dutifully taking other people's word about what's right, you are putting yourself in the position to be led down some very dark roads."
It isn't until page 238 of the 306-page book that Patchett dives truly and deeply into her marriage, the one we are alerted to in the book's title.
"Tell the story of your marriage," Patchett's friend Niki told her. "Write down how it is you have a happy marriage."
"But the story of my marriage," Patchett writes, "which is the great joy and astonishment of my life, is too much like a fairy tale — the German kind, unsweetened by Disney. It is a story of children wandering alone through a dark forest, past shadowy animals with razor teeth and yellow eyes, towards an accident that is punishable by years and years of sleep. It is an unpleasant business, even if it ends in love."
Her telling of this business, though, is as gorgeous as her strongest works of fiction. She's honest and vulnerable as she recounts the 11 years she spent meeting and falling in love with — but repeatedly and vociferously refusing to marry — her now-husband.
It spoils the story to say here what changes her mind and leads her to cement their union. But one of the many lovely results of her change of heart is this paragraph:
"The fact that we came so close to missing out, missing out because of my own fear of failing, makes me think I avoided a mortal accident by the thickness of a coat of paint. We are, on this earth, so incredibly small, in the history of time, in the crowd of the world, we are practically invisible, not even a dot, and yet we have each other to hold on to."
Heidi Stevens writes the weekly Balancing Act column as well as lifestyles stories for the Tribune.
"This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage"
By Ann Patchett, Harper, 320 pages, $27.99