As you're reading Ann Patchett's nonfiction collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, don't be surprised if you have the sensation that instead of consuming words on a page, you're listening to your wisest, most humane friend. The personal essays, reporting, speeches and even writing advice in these 23 pieces display Patchett's mastery of nonfiction that's every bit the equal of her skill as a novelist.
As she reveals in "Nonfiction, an Introduction," Patchett "got her start in women's magazines," relying on her day job to pay the bills while she worked on her first novel. For that reason, she says, the collection is "full of example and advice." Those qualities are best revealed in "The Getaway Car," originally published as an exclusive for Byliner. Patchett's account of her fiction writing apprenticeship contains enough sound counsel in 40 pages to replace a good-sized shelf of instruction manuals. In the title essay, written as an audio piece for Audible, Patchett relates what she's learned about why marriages fail and succeed, contrasting her brief and disastrous first marriage with her current one--which came about after an unusual 11-year courtship.
Many readers of Shelf Awareness may have warm feelings toward Patchett for her role in establishing the Nashville independent bookstore Parnassus Books in 2011. In "The Bookstore Strikes Back," she admits she's "dizzied by the blitheness that stood in place of any sort of business sense," but in the store's relatively brief life it's been a spectacular success, landing her on the front page of the New York Times and causing her to "inadvertently become the spokesperson for independent bookstores."
Patchett excels in several other personal histories, most notably "The Mercies," the tender story of her relationship with an elderly nun, Sister Nena, who taught her to read and write. "Love Sustained" is the painstaking account of her grandmother's difficult final years, "when every ability and pleasure my grandmother had would be taken from her, one by one by one." Her gift for humor is displayed in "My Road to Hell," the story of the week she and the man who became her current husband spent driving a 29-foot Winnebago through Yellowstone National Park.
The Ann Patchett revealed in these pages feels deeply, remembers meticulously and moves gracefully through the journey that is life. We all can be thankful she's invited us along for the ride. --Harvey Freedenberg
Shelf Talker: This collection of Ann Patchett's nonfiction showcases her talent for keen observation and graceful prose.