The Heart of the Matter
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
(Harper Collins, 2013)
A few years ago, riding in a taxi with my boss, we fell into conversation about guilty pleasures. “Do you know what Abby’s is?” my coworker piped up. “Ann Patchett.” My boss looked surprised. My heart sank, my English-degree snobbery hanging in precarious limbo. “But why is she a guilty pleasure?” he asked. I stammered, I wasn’t sure. “I guess her books seem too enjoyable not to be?”
And with that I washed my hands of the whole guilty pleasure business. The truth is, I love Ann Patchett. I eagerly await the arrival of her next novel, and have recommended Bel Canto to half the people I know. Her writing is fluid, her stories are captivating, and her character development is uncanny. While hundreds of great books have slipped from my memory, I could effortlessly recount the plots of most of her novels. Headstrong Rose, the woefully independent leading character in The Patron Saint of Liars, is still vivid in my mind, and I’m eternally grateful to have met Patchett’s best friend Lucy Grealy in the pages of Truth and Beauty. The worlds Patchett creates are perfectly drawn, flawed, and beautiful places that have lingered with me for years.
Patchett’s newest book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is equally captivating, though this time the subject is herself. A collection of essays drawn primarily from works previously published in magazines and literary publications, the book reads as a memoir of sorts. However, unlike the memoirs of most writers, we do not learn about Patchett through the lens of her career; rather, we come to understand her as we might a new friend. We learn about her from the people with whom she chooses to surround herself—meeting a family member or friend here and there, piecing together childhood stories with adulthood struggles. Written with the same ease and gracefulness that characterizes her fiction, the collection opens the door to Patchett’s life as a writer, and invites us to share in the private moments that have made her the public figure that she is today.
The book grows out of the work that Patchett refers to as her “second career,” writing done initially as a way to stay afloat financially. In her early days of fiction writing Patchett contributed to magazines, including Seventeen and Bridal Guide. Eventually, she realized that she no longer needed the money but that she enjoyed doing the work, and she went on to write for Gourmet, New York Times Magazine, and Granta, among others. An enviable career on its own, it has the added benefit of culminating in a body of work that is a lovely documentation of her life.
Structured loosely chronologically, the essays take the reader on a journey through Patchett’s biography. Together we cringe through her childhood Christmases, weather her first divorce and subsequent waitressing gig, meet her husband-to-be, Karl, and say hello and goodbye to her beloved grandmother and dog. While writing always necessitates an element of persona, Patchett manages to forgo a constructed narrator in favor of an utterly likable character: herself. She happily hangs her failures and flaws out to dry, and then gets on with telling you the story.
The title essay, which appears toward the end of the book, is a long and honest tribute to her relationship with Karl. It tells of the 11 years they spent dating before she felt ready for marriage, and the tremendous relief and fear that came with finally committing. While it is well written, it also manages to read as a genuine and heartfelt essay—a strikingly singular meditation on love.
While they are still dating, Karl is diagnosed with a heart condition, a finding that leaves Patchett unmoored: “All these years I had thought to be afraid of only one potential ending: by not marrying Karl, we could never get divorced. By not marrying him, he would never be lost to me. Now I could see the failure of my imagination. I had accounted only for the loss I knew enough to fear.” Against the odds, Patchett makes it from Nashville, Tennessee, to a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, in the midst of a blizzard to see Karl, arriving in his room 30 seconds before he is wheeled in after surgery. “‘See,’ he said to the nurse when he saw me there. His voice was bleary from anesthetic. ‘Didn’t I tell you she’d be here?’ He took my hand. ‘They said no, she can’t make it. They said everything’s closed. And I said you don’t know Ann.’ Explain doubt to me, because at that moment I ceased to understand it. In return I will tell you everything I know about love.”
Of all the essays in the collection, the best is perhaps “The Wall,” a story about the L.A.P.D. Two years before the Rodney King riots, Patchett’s father had retired as a captain with the department after 32 years of service. After the riots shook L.A., Patchett, acutely aware of the growing hatred for the police force, decides to try out for the Academy. She takes us with her on the journey through her training and the daunting physical challenge of the police officer’s test. But more importantly, she gives us a window into her relationship with her father—a man she loves but had to grow up living halfway across the country from, following her parents’ divorce: “My father has at different times in his life been proud of me, but this morning he is thrilled with me. While I kick my heels up towards my back and cut past the other runners, my father, looking at me and his watch in equal measure, is a policeman, and I am the best cadet in his class.” She willingly unlocks her most treasured moments and encourages us to share in them with her. There is no snobbery or elitism, rather an unaffected recounting of a life well-lived.
Reading the collection, I was struck by the realization that perhaps this was why I felt that Patchett was a guilty pleasure. There is a certain genuineness that pervades her writing that is so rare, I couldn’t quite reconcile with myself how best to categorize it. Perhaps her prose doesn’t leave one breathless, as Nabokov’s does, and her narratives don’t require a full reference library to understand the plot, as Joyce’s might, but that really isn’t the point. It’s difficult to say who will go down in the great canon of American history, but I’m confident that I’ll be passing Patchett books along for many years to come.
ABBY MARGULIES is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.