(Note: This book was NOT on my original list for 20 Books of Summer. Nor was it on my REVISED list. Ha ha! I just really felt like reading it, so it’s going to bump off one of the books on my revised list. I can do that, right? Sure I can!)
This is one that’s been on my TBR forever. I am a big fan of Ann Patchett, especially Bel Canto and her memoir about her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty. I hadn’t read that one in a long time and I’d forgotten just how good Patchett is at writing nonfiction. She excels at it, in my opinion. I haven’t read a whole lot of essay collections, and the ones I’ve read usually are hit or miss. But This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage is stellar. There were just a few instances where I shrugged after I finished. Mostly, I stared contentedly into space and said, “Wow…”
This wide-ranging collection reads like a loosely structured memoir. The reader learns much about Patchett’s parents’s doomed marriage, her Catholic school education, her early days as a writer, and her own disastrous first marriage. We learn about her dog, Rose, and her grandmother, Eva. We get a glimpse of the (ridiculous) controversy over Truth and Beauty when it was assigned reading for freshman at Clemson University in South Carolina, and we discover the genesis of Parnassus Books, the successful independent bookstore she co-owns in her hometown of Nashville, TN. Patchett comes across as fiercely dedicated to the craft of writing and fiercely loyal to those she loves. She is frank about her own shortcomings, both professional and personal. She is not exactly a warm presence but there is an unsparingly honest and wise quality to her writing that is appealing.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.
My favorite essay was “The Wall,” which was about Patchett’s father, who was a police officer with the LAPD for over 30 years. Patchett got an idea to write a nonfiction book about the LAPD during the horrible time of the Rodney King riots. She wanted to show a different view of the LAPD, the one that she was privy to as the daughter of a cop. She decided to train for and take the test to be admitted to the Police Academy. She details her self-styled training regimen (she was 30 at the time,) complete with clearing a six-foot wall, one of the biggest hurdles for women trying to enter the Academy especially. Her account of the physical, written, and oral exam process is fascinating. The whole time she’s doing all of this, her father doesn’t exactly believe her when she says she’s only doing it for the book. Part of him hopes she’ll actually go through with it and become a cop. As I read this I was reminded of my favorite contemporary detective series, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which are set in the LAPD. Part of me marveled at Patchett’s dedication to her craft and part of me wondered, “Why are you wasting all these peoples’ time?”
This was a collection in which I wanted to read multiple essays at one sitting; when I had to put it down, I was eager to get the chance to pick it up again. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom here, a life in which mistakes have led to a deeper understanding and a greater sense of compassion, both for herself and for others. If you’re a writer or enjoy reading about the craft of writing, I say pick this one up. (“The Getaway Car,” another of my favorites, is a fantastic glimpse at the writing process.) If you’ve ever deeply loved a pet or a relative, you’ll find gems here. (Warning: I did cry a couple of times, as one might expect when reading an essay about a beloved pet or relative dying.) This was a terrific read, and even if you’re generally not into reading essays, I say give this a try.
Have you read this? Are there essay collections you’re particularly fond of? I’d love to know your thoughts.