Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage: Or Is It?

Happy MarriageAnn Patchett has written many books, including the critically acclaimed State of Wonder, (Snotty Literati launched its book-reviewing gig with State of Wonder), Bel Canto, and Truth & Beauty (a memoir). This is a collection of previously published essays. They come from diverse sources ranging from Atlantic Monthly to Outside, from Vogue to the Wall Street Journal (to name only a few). Despite the breadth of periodicals represented, is the collection unified (which is one question we will look at)? Is this a book of disparate, albeit engaging, essays? Is this a book held together by a strong voice? Is this a book mostly for writers (since there’s a lot of great writer stuff in here)? Or is this a book about something else? It’s not really a book, by the way, about a happy marriage.

Lara: I need to just start by saying that I love Ann Patchett. She may be my favorite contemporary fiction writer. I would read anything this woman writes. Anything. Like the back of a box of light bulbs. If she wrote all the fine print on a pair of GEs, I would read it. Plus, she loves me. She even told me.

Jennifer: You may need to explain this, so we get what you mean.

Lara: I was at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe when she was on tour promoting the paperback release of State of Wonder. After she read and spoke to the group, she stayed on to sign books and talk. I approached her, starry-eyed, and a bit fan-atical (I am not willing to say I was fanatical, so don’t edit my hyphenation, Jennifer) and I blurted out, “I just love you, Ann!” and she said—and I quote—“Oh! I love you, too!” I don’t think it matters that I said it first. What matters is that she was very genuine and we had a lovely talk about her book and our families, and that she LOVES me. It was amazy.

Jennifer: Lara, she was just saying that. But whatever. Here we go. First, I adored this book. Loved it to pieces. Second, I feel like I have a weird relationship with Ann. And, yes, it’s as one-sided as that love-thing you’ve got going. I’ve only read three of her books, but with all three of them, I’ve been left slightly off-kilter, like there’s something disturbing going on. With State of Wonder, the very end flipped me out—though now I’m good with it. With Truth & Beauty, I felt a little conflicted about the nature of friendship and what it means to be a friend. With this one, I’m really pretty good, though—as you’ve pointed out, and we don’t need to dwell on it—I get a little jealous of her success and lifestyle. (It seems from my jealous point of view that her early post-MFA life was this rather charmed existence in which she moved from one picturesque residency to another; you have said—in true Lara Fashion—that we each have our journeys and struggles; this may be why Patchett said she loves you.) Her work, though, sits heavily with me and ultimately well. I end up thinking a lot about it. I end up thankful for her ability to be provocative. I end up wanting more. I keep coming back.

So, do you think this is a unified collection, or is it a gathering of disparate essays?


Evidence of Ann’s admiration. When my book club was voting for the month’s selection, Bel Canto was on the ballot. White Teeth by Zadie Smith won, and no one ended up liking it. I voted for Ann and haven’t forgiven the Book Babes since.

Lara: She loves me and you won’t convince me otherwise.

But you do ask a good question. It’s a unified collection in that they are all non-fiction, memoirist stories, but it is not so unified in topic. And as we allude to in the introduction, the happy marriage she refers to is metaphoric, not actual. I think it speaks of the marriage between writing nonfiction and writing fiction; she has written nonfiction—primarily freelance for magazines—which has enabled her to do the work she really loves, which is writing novels. In this book, the marriage between her nonfiction and her fiction is happy. Rather than seeing them hierarchically or as one form serving the other, she sees them as complimentary. That said, I think it’s a book that can be enjoyed by non-writers. If you like good writing and insightful, personal accounts you will like this book. Maybe even love it like we did.

Jennifer: Huh. I think the happy marriage is her actual, literal marriage—but I like your metaphor idea a lot—and you’re likely right. That’s just one aspect of the book, though. I do think this is ultimately a book for writers; as a matter of fact, I added it to my Recommended Books on Writing on my website (which is a pretty limited selection of books). It’s a wonderful book for writers—not just on how to write (“The Getaway Car,” which should be a staple in creative writing classes—it probably is), but also on the life and mind of a writer. Maybe the life and mind of an artist. Actually, what unifies this collection is Ann Patchett. The mind and color of her persona holds this collection of essays together!

This is slightly daring, really. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When one writes a memoir, one puts oneself out there to be liked or disliked. One becomes the subject. One’s character—and not just one’s writing (is it all the same anyway?)—is judged. In one essay, Patchett writes about the strong reaction her memoir Truth & Beauty (chronicling her friendship with fellow author Lucy Grealy) evoked when it was chosen by Clemson University to be the book that all incoming freshmen would read. A lot of people thought this book was inappropriate and immoral (I reviewed it here), and Patchett writes, “Not until the middle of the night, when I was back safely in my sister’s guest bed, did I realize that he [a student] wasn’t saying I was immoral for not judging Lucy. He was saying I was immoral for the things I had done myself.” And this is part of writing memoir: you, your person, will be judged.

This is a risk, I think. And, it’s not without some hesitation that I say that the person of Ann Patchett holds the collection together.

Lara: I agree that anyone who writes a memoir is putting him- or herself out there to be judged. In that same essay about Truth & Beauty, she shares one student’s question, “Lots of people have friends and lots of people have cancer so why should we care about what you have to say?” And, to a degree, that student is right. However, she wrote Truth & Beauty to keep the memory of her best friend alive, and in essence, Lucy alive.

“I wanted to stay with Lucy, and writing the book was the way I could do that.”

In fact, in her 2005 convocation address to the Miami University of Ohio, she said,

“I’ve made a point about not giving talks about Truth & Beauty… I didn’t want to go around telling the same stories over and over again until they felt worn out and common, like a part of a routine to sell books.”

Don’t get me wrong, Ann makes her living as a writer. But the reverence she holds for her now-deceased friend, and this book, is both protective and touching. It’s a shame that there was a small, but vocal group at Clemson University who tried to turn it into something ugly.

Did you have any revelations about Ann or uncover any surprises in reading these essays?

Jennifer: Good question. I don’t know if I did about Ann, per se. I felt like I learned a lot about writing and the life. Even that quote you mentioned about keeping Lucy alive by writing the memoir. Patchett demonstrates how writing is an act of preservation, of collating and gathering and organizing memories to keep them forever in a sensible way that is beautiful too. I guess I’d say that, in a big picture way, each of these essays is that—a means of collating our lives, sensibly and beautifully. In a small picture way, this is a book about writing.

Lara: So if it’s a book about writing, why would a non-writer read it? Or will Patchett fans be the only folks who should read it?

Jennifer: I’m okay with saying this. It’s a book for writers and Patchett fans. That’s okay. But couldn’t we go a little bigger? It’s a book for those interested in the Arts, which is to say—drum roll, please—it’s for those interested in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

Lara: Well, one of my favorite essays was “The Wall” where she tells of her clear love for her father, a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, and her attempt to make it into the Police Academy—not to be an officer, but to write about Academy life.

In that essay, you learn that lean and lithe Ann is a physical badass. Clearing six foot walls, running until she almost passes out, and completing other physical challenges in good time and form with the other applicants. She also gets the highest score on the written exam, not surprisingly. In the end, though, her father is surprised that she doesn’t actually want to be a cop. Her tenacity about applying, for the purpose of research and writing was convincing—even to her dad. I think that’s why she’s such a great writer. She immerses herself in what she wants to write about in such a way that you forget she’s gathering material. That passion and determination about her craft is good advice for anyone, in any field.

Jennifer: That was one of my favorite essays, too, for a number of reasons. I love the way she chooses to honor her father; the essay—about so many things—ultimately is about her love of her father. I love the audacity of it. The wildness, the freedom, the voyeurism-combined-with-badassery: Ann really, truly goes through all the tests and tries to get into the LAPD! She does it to write about it. (You just said all this. I just like to say it too.) I admire this about her very much. She often puts herself in an interesting spot to write about it—not from the outside, but from the inside.

(Another essay I love here was “My Road to Hell Was Paved,” in which Patchett and her then-ex-boyfriend-but-soon-to-be-husband-because-sometimes-that’s-how-it-works go to Yellowstone in a Winnebago for the purpose of writing a travel piece on that camper-culture; I love this kind of “embedded” memoir writing; I wish I could do it like that. Honesty time: this made me very jealous—not in a vindictive, meany way, Lara. There’s always been this big part of me that wants to take off and get embedded to write something wild. I’d like to be a trucker for a week or live in a trailer for a very short time only or go to Venice with George Clooney so I could politely bow out of marriage on a piazza and return to my husband and kids in Phoenix. I’ll mention another essay that made me feel this way: the title essay to David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—in which DFW goes on a cruise to write about it.)

But there is something else I love about that police essay: what it reveals about writing. When Ann is being interviewed to get into the Academy, she is respectfully listening to how it’s good to suggest that you’re a team player. Team player. We’ve all heard how this is an important aspect of employment. But this is what Patchett so candidly thinks: “Except for novel writing.”

Lara, this hit me very, very hard. Like I almost wept. I know it has to do with my own life, and where I personally am at in my own novel-writing. But I was moved. I’m afraid—and this is not without sorrow or consequence—that she speaks a harsh truth here. I have no doubt Patchett is aware of this. Novel writers are not team players. They just aren’t.

And then, I love how she and her father discuss her future in the police force. She tells him,

“But I told you I was never going to be a cop. I told you it was all for writing.”

“I didn’t believe you,” he says.

I love this for its candor. This is true of everything maybe: it’s always for the writing. Ouch. Do you feel the pain?

I’m not totally sure I’m being clear here. Patchett is being honest about a dark truth, really. Perhaps I’m admitting to something a little sinister. Are you with me? I’m saying writer motives are iffy, suspicious. Do not fully trust writers. They are often manipulative. They’re doing it for the writing.

Lara: While I can kind of see that, I also think you are trying to bring a little more excitement to the role of the writer. I think anyone in a creative field, be it writing, sculpting, painting, singing, architecture, design, etc., pulls from what they experience personally or what they see and hear through others and uses it in their work. You do it; she does it. Really, everyone does it.

But I will let you have your moment of self-reflective drama.

Jennifer: Thank you. Appreciate that. I want to go back to that uncovered surprises thing—which, I think, you still need to address. Back to “The Getaway Car,” which I could go on and on about. Patchett, talking about putting one’s novel together: She writes, “Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually . . . I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I’m doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage.” What an awesome piece of advice.

Lara: It is awesome advice—even for non-writers. Imagine if we all approached what we did this way, stretching beyond our comfort zone. See, Ann? I am trying to broaden your readership; Jennifer, on the other hand, wants this book only in writers’ hands…

Jennifer: I know. You can try, if you want. Here’s some fabulous prose style:

On her childhood romantic vision of herself: “I would be poor, obscure, alone, possibly in Paris.”

Just look at the humor: “I imagine that every now and then a book [from a summer writing program] is picked up by a prestigious New York agent and sold to a prestigious New York publisher, but it is statistically akin to finding a four-leaf clover. On the banks of the Dead Sea. In July.”

Lara: I am thinking more of her advocacy of free-thinking that she gave to the freshmen class at Clemson in 2006. The same school which parents and legislators wanted to ban the entering class’s assignment to read Truth & Beauty because of its alleged homosexual, pornographic, anti-religious tones.

“The people who oppose the assignment of Truth & Beauty and who oppose my presence here on campus today do not do so for themselves. After all, nobody’s making them read my book. They are opposing on your behalf. They want to protect you from me, even if they were unable to protect you from Grand Theft Auto. Since you’re just starting out as freshmen, let’s take a few minutes to think about what else you are going to need protecting from … You don’t want to pay good money to have to read about immoral behavior, so Anna Karenina is out. It’s about adultery, a married woman’s affair with another man, and her eventual suicide. It’s scandalous, but it’s also really long. The Great Gatsby has more adultery, in addition to alcoholism and murder, so that has to go as well. It will be harder to let go of that one because it’s short, and you may have already read it in high school … My uncontested pick for the best novel of the twentieth century is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and if I start talking about Lolita I feel certain the National Guard will come and remove me from this stage. Faulkner is gone. Hemingway is gone. Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Philip Roth, our greatest living American authors, are off limits to you. There is so much sex and filthy language in their books that I should probably not even say their names … The implicit assumption in trying to protect you from the likes of me is that you have not filters, no life experience, no judgment, and very little intellect. You are so malleable that reading an assigned book, one that mentions drugs and sex, will make you throw the book to the floor and rush out to engage in all of those activities yourself…”

Can I just say, AMEN! Preach the good word, Sister Ann! PREACH.

Jennifer: Well, of course I had to immediately rush out and read Truth & Beauty after that speech. She speaks the truth. When we are confronted by a book, we are not asked to partake in its moral imperative—nor should we so quickly assume that we understand its moral imperative.

At any rate, I sense a slight difference of opinion here. I might be willing to limit the appeal of this book, and you might widen it. We would both agree that Patchett expresses herself beautifully.

My favorite essays were “The Getaway Car,” “My Road to Hell Was Paved,” and “The Wall.” I also really liked the title essay. All of them are worth reading.

Lara: Truth & Beauty is wonderful and not all of the horrible things those few squeaky wheels screamed out. I also love her advocacy of books, reading and bookstores (with the building of her own store, Parnassus Books, in Memphis when the town lost its last two brick and mortar bookstores). She’s a literary badass, too.

My favorites of this collection were “The Getaway Car,” “The Wall,” “Fact vs. Fiction,” “My Life in Sales,” “The Right to Read,” and, oh hell, I loved it all.

I love you Ann! I love you!

And I know you love me.

Next Up!

We’re going for the classics with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn!


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