THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE. By Ann Patchett. Harper. 306 pages. $27.99.
The best advertisement for Ann Patchett's new collection of nonfiction is anything else Patchett has written. Her novels ("Bel Canto" remains the most exquisite), memoir about a friend ("Truth & Beauty") and assorted speeches and essays all share unusual frankness and drawing power. Patchett's style is not overly confessional, but it is beguiling in ways that make her sound like someone you'd want to know. Her new book, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," reinforces the impression of an uncommonly kind person who is not above self-interest but loves books, her grandmother, the toughest nun who taught her in grade school, her husband and her darling dog.
Mush? Hardly. Patchett has had the courage to assemble both the hackish pieces she's written for Vogue, which do a sunny job of reinforcing what the reader wants to think, with freer, more soul-searching work from The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. If these pieces were not identified by source, it would still be very easy to guess. But Patchett started writing magazine articles at an early age ("When Your Best Friend's a Guy"), and she nailed the tricks of that trade so well that they're worth showing off. In a long piece for Byliner, she shows off her accumulated prowess by delivering "a veritable clearinghouse of practical advice."
Crediting much of what she knows to the luck of the draw, which gave her Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks as writing teachers, Patchett presents herself as something of a traditionalist. If you want to write, she says in "The Getaway Car," sit down at your desk every day. Start with 20 minutes. Work up to two hours. "During that time, you don't have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books," she says. "Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your email. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing." And either you'll write or you'll quit. "Either way," Patchett says, "you'll have your answer."
As she says in "The Getaway Car," and demonstrates throughout these essays, Patchett believes in telling stories straightforwardly. You don't drown a character and then go back to figure out why it happened, she says. You lead up to the event and then consider its causes and consequences. That, at least, is how she writes about the most memorable subjects in "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," all but one of which are either animate or much mourned. Those that are dead come very much alive as Patchett lovingly recalls them.
The inanimate marvel is Parnassus Books, the independent bookstore Patchett opened in Nashville, Tenn., in 2011 with a business partner, Karen Hayes, who did much of the heavy lifting. Like almost all of the topics in this collection, it is touched on more than once. The seeds for it appear in "My Life in Sales," with Patchett trying to describe the ordeal of going on book tour, finding almost nobody in the bookstores to hear her and attempting to convince herself that the process is necessary. She describes the early days of in-person book marketing, when Julia Child made mayonnaise in a blender in a Boston department store and crowds went crazy. But to Patchett, the whole idea seems inherently wrong.
Her desperation is palpable. When someone asks her where she got the idea for her latest book, she wants to scream: "The book is about you. I've been stealing your mail for years." Still, she soldiers on and gets the hang of it and begins to draw large, loyal crowds. She is sentimental about them when "My Life in Sales" is over.
By the time "The Bookstore Strikes Back" comes along, Patchett is touring with an extra goal: to see how the independents are run, even though "I wanted to go into retail about as much as I wanted to go into the Army." Parnassus turns out to be a roaring success, not least because she winds up on the front page of The New York Times. (Hijacking a busload of schoolchildren wouldn't have gotten her that much attention, she surmises.) Her appearance promoting her novel "State of Wonder" on "The Colbert Report," during which she shouts: "No! No! Not Amazon. Order it off parnassusbooks.net, and I'll sign it for you," sends orders through the roof. By all means visit the bookstore's website if you want to feel a little less sad about Rose, the dog who lives her whole life during the span of this book, and Sparky, who has a place in the store and, no doubt, in Patchett's heart.
The main essay's title is not misleading, just limiting: This book is about so much more than love, marriage or divorce, all of which figure in it. In a longish piece written for Audible Originals, Patchett tells about the unhappy first marriage that she entered and stayed in mostly out of guilt, the long history of divorce in her family, and the remarkable conundrum she faced when finally single. She was happy and free and wanted to stay that way. Meanwhile, the Cinderella part: Her mother worked for a doctor whose wife had left him and who could not bear to be alone. He was handsome, successful and very much in demand, and he wanted Patchett, whose motto became "I'm the only person you're going to find who isn't going to marry you."
But she did. And it seems only fair that a woman who has cared so tenderly for others and moved home to be near her Nashville family should find herself living happily ever after.
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