Pity the poor essay collection. Unlike its close, more creative neighbor — the short story collection — or its snooty relation, The Novel, the humble essay collection is the wallflower of the literary world. And, when an essay collection is composed — as Ann Patchett's new volume partly is — of pieces previously printed in fashion and pet lovers' magazines, it really might seem like a grab bag of minor material — as, admittedly, a few of the pieces here are.
But if you want to learn something practical about writing, specifically how someone like Ann Patchett became the feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground wonder of a novelist that she is, many of these essays can tell you — both by their very existence and their varied subject matter. As Patchett says in the first sentence of the introduction to This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage: "The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living." Before novels like Bel Canto and State Of Wonder began paying her bills, Patchett not only worked as a waitress at TGI Fridays, but she wrote for the likes of Seventeen and Bridal Guide. Just like Dickens at the blacking factory and Wallace Stevens at the insurance office, Patchett punched her timecard for a while outside the confines of the ivy tower and the high art hothouse. That experience, she says, "made me a workhorse," and forced her to cultivate a curiosity about things — like cross-country Winnebago camping trips and the rigors of the Los Angeles police academy — way outside her comfort zone.
There are also a lot of autobiographical essays here — so many, in fact, that readers who loved Truth & Beauty, Patchett's memoir about her close friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, will be happy to know that this collection takes Patchett's life story a few steps forward. The spectacular title essay, "This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage," recounts the soul-shredding mess of Patchett's early first marriage and divorce and her resolution just to date for the rest of her life. When a newly divorced doctor named Karl is pushed in her path, she agrees to go out with him. Here's a pivotal moment:
The third time Karl and I went out I kissed him; I told him I would help him. He said that he needed some help. Then he asked me to marry him.
I shook my head. "That's the whole point," I said. "I'm the only person you're going to find who isn't going to marry you."
And I didn't. For eleven years.
Patchett, to state the obvious, is a good storyteller, and that minor bombshell about the 11-year courtship leading up to her eventual second marriage is dramatically placed to rivet a reader's attention. Beyond entertainment value, however, that title essay is a spirited contribution to the larger story of romantic relationships that aren't, well, "romantic" in the swooning ways we're used to reading about or seeing in movies. Patchett's down-to-earthness also sets the tone for her essays on the easily sentimentalized subject of caregiving: She writes here about tending to her beloved dog, an elderly nun friend and her 90-something-year-old grandmother. That particular essay, called "Love Sustained," is a must-read for anyone in the draining role of caregiver. Patchett wryly says that "I had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly. I had every intention of feeling simply awful that I wasn't with my grandmother in her years of decline." But fate thwarts Patchett's escape plans. She winds up intimately nursing her grandmother — scrubbing her in the shower, clipping her toenails and, as Patchett says, watching helpless as "every ability and pleasure my grandmother had would be taken from her, one by one by one."
Early in this collection, Patchett snarls about people who come up to her and opine that "everyone ha[s] at least one great novel in them."
"Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?" Patchett sassily answers back. "One [great] algebraic proof?" I suspect that, given how underrated the essay form is, lots of people also probably think it's easy to toss one of those off, too; but in this terrific, wide-ranging collection, Patchett demonstrates how a pro does it.