Ann Patchett's new book will win you over, in spite of yourself

Too much kindly advice can be grating, as the author unintentionally demonstrates in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage — yet her collection of essays is also a charmer

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage Ann Patchett

Bloomsbury, pp.300, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408842393

Ann Patchett’s novels revel in the tightly constructed ecosystems imagined for their characters: an opera singer besieged among diplomats in the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto; State of Wonder’s pharmacologist in the Amazon; a fugitive wife hiding in a home for unwed mothers in The Patron Saint of Liars. In this new collection of personal essays collated from publications including the New York Times, Vogue and Granta, Patchett maps out her own life, her own constructed universe. From a post-divorce stint at TGI Friday’s and an early writing career in women’s magazines (a world where some of the greatest writers cut their teeth, not least Jorge Luis Borges), we move towards bestseller lists and the recent opening of her own independent bookshop. Essays on topics as diverse as a holiday in a Winnebago and a love of opera on the big screen lead towards the eventual ‘happy marriage’ — a serendipitous alignment of dissonant forces.

Patchett establishes herself as part of a strong lineage of divorcées. Women are the protagonists here — husbands are carelessly lost in the spaces between essays and generations. However, for all those who bought the book after finding it mis-shelved in the self-help section, there’s no need to fret. This is a success story if ever there was one. Over the course of 300 pages, Patchett makes her peace with men, God and the publishing industry, and doles out a significant bulk of advice along the way.

We sense that Patchett has long been martyred to others’ idiocy. The literature students at Clemson University haven’t even read The Great Gatsby, and hulking men at the LA Police Academy trials are ‘close to tears’ over their written test. Apart from the houseguest who gets sassily sledgehammered for her assumption that ‘everyone has at least one great novel inside them’, these poor souls are generally taken under Patchett’s wing. At one point, as things get heavy, the author breaks off with an ‘I’m sorry, am I comparing myself to the Buddha?’ Yes.

There is something about Patchett’s formation of a sentence — something so knowing, so totally assured in its wry self-deprecation — that can become grating. There are only so many boundless blessings and kind-hearted counsels that can be contained within the folds of a book jacket. To quote Patchett herself, ‘Sometimes it is the wonderful life, the life of abundant friends and extended family and true love, that makes you want to run screaming for the hills.’

What’s more, it takes wilful blindness to write about how no one appreciates the transcendent connection between you and your dog, and assume your readers will be any different. Yet it’s hard not to feel a pang at the memory of said dog’s final moments on the veterinary table. That’s the Patchett effect. You’re won over, in spite of yourself.

As a series of collected essays, this is not exactly a memoir. The form allows you to dip in and out, to navigate away from complacency and find more fertile climes. The essay on the tyrannical vegetation of Tennessee offers exactly this, while a description of a lovers’ argument in a Paris restaurant, interweaving a Michelin-starred menu with a word-game spun out of control, is a gleeful exposure of human brittleness. Here we see Patchett’s style at its best, her ability to encapsulate a situation with economical intensity.

This is a book that will annoy as many people as will find its advice invaluable; it’s the small islands of stylistic genius that carry the reader through.

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