Sunday, December 8, 2013

"This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," by Ann Patchett

As I approached the counter to pay for some books a couple of days ago in one of my favorite independent bookstores, Books Inc., in Laurel Village, San Francisco (part of a very local mini-chain), I heard a customer ahead of me and a salesperson discussing Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore in Nashville. I said (horning in on their conversation, but they didn’t seem to mind), “Oh, I am reading her book ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ right now!” The customer enthusiastically replied, “Oh, me too! I love it!” So the three of us started talking about the book, and Patchett’s earlier books (including “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder”), and her bookstore. We all are big fans. And we agreed that this latest book, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” (Harper, 2013), a collection of essays, is absolutely absorbing, and makes us feel we actually know Patchett. I think of this little episode (which is, by the way, the kind of thing that happens often in independent bookstores, one of the reasons I so love these centers of literature and community) as an example of how Patchett is not only a gifted writer, but an engaging one, and as the creator of an independent bookstore in Nashville when its other bookstores had closed, a heroine to those of us who are rooting for the survival of such local, special bookstores. I have now finished the book, and was absolutely caught up in it. Patchett writes about her childhood, her apprenticeship as a writer, her relationship with her grandmother, her childhood teacher (a nun) with whom she reconnects as an adult, her beloved dogs, her book tours, the controversy over her book about her late friend Lucy (the book was chosen as the assigned freshman book by Clemson University, and then protested by many conservative parents and others in the area), and much more. The title essay tells how, as the child of a family riven by multiple divorces over several generations, Patchett was reluctant to marry, and even when she found the right person, it took her eleven years to agree to marry; the couple is now -- as the title indicates -- very happy. In each essay, Patchett’s warm voice makes us feel we are actually in conversation with her. Of course the conversational style of the writing is deceptively simple, and is in fact extremely well-crafted…that is one of the marks of a true writer. I can’t help thinking, though, that no one could present such a seemingly candid and engaging self if she were not really like that. Is that na├»ve of me? In any case, for fans of Patchett, as well as for those who have not read her before, I strongly recommend this book.

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