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This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett

Bloomsbury India

Pages: 320 Rs. 450

Patchett draws up the map of an enthralling journey

Ann Patchett’s collection of autobiographical essays is a book so intimate in its expression that reading it feels almost like an interactive experience, writes Janice Pariat.

Janice Pariat  17th May 2014

Ann Patchett

nn Patchett is an old friend.

Or at least that's what it feels like at the end of the book. You've peered into her childhood — divorced parents, grew up on a farm, attended convent school — and shared her resilient dream of being a writer. You've spent time with her ailing grandmother, her beloved dog Rose, accompanied her on road trips, sympathised over her failed first marriage, rejoiced at her happy second, at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookshop in Nashville.

The author describes This is the Story of a Happy Marriage as a "finished puzzle", each piece drawn from various points of her extended career as an essayist for numerous travel, cultural, and women's magazines. The bulk of the essays were selected by Niki Castle, Patchett's friend and director of events and marketing at Parnassus, on the grounds that"they deserved the chance to sit together, and that by keeping company, they would inform one another." Even though Patchett was hesitant, she expanded a few, wrote new additions to fill the gaps, and eventually, ended up with a book that looked, as she says, "very much like a map to my house." A map of experiences and moments that shaped her as a writer, daughter, spouse and friend. A map of a life's journey, with all the love, loss, work and adventure that could entail.

In honesty, I began reading This is the Story... with some trepidation. Much lauded as Patchett is for her fiction, I wouldn't place myself as a voluble enthusiast of her novels. In her fiction, she says, she roams — a black jazz musician in Memphis, an enigmatic scientist in the Brazilian Rio Negro, an opera singer in an unnamed (but "poor", naturally) South American country — while This is the Story... tends to reflect a life lived close to home. And therein lies the difference. Where I've found her fictional characters sometimes wooden and unconvincing, here they are engagingly, wholeheartedly real, their complexities revealed gradually through the essays as any good novel should do. We first encounter Patchett's father as a voice on the other end of the telephone, misery-struck, divorced from her mother, calling to wish them at Christmas. Gifting young Ann a story. Later, in The Wall, we plunge into his life, an ex-cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, as Patchett trains for the exams to join the country's most prestigious law enforcement office. Not because she aspires to be a cop, but because she wants to write about it. And something else: "I am interested in the job my father had. I am interested in my father, whom I am very close to, but have seen remarkably little of in my life." Karl, in My Road to Hell Was Paved is her grudging companion, an ex-boyfriend, accompanying her on a road trip assignment, and by the eponymous title chapter, the slow and steady love of her life. Also housed within the pages are her beautiful, troubled mother, the feisty Sister Nena, a nun who taught her in school, the late poet Lucy Grealy, young, talented, tragic, all set against Patchett's home state Tennessee, her university years at Sarah Lawrence College, at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, her hometown Nashville.

Where I’ve found her fictional characters sometimes wooden and unconvincing, here they are engagingly, wholeheartedly real, their complexities revealed gradually through the essays as any good novel should do.

The essays I most enjoyed, unsurprisingly since it's a vocation singularly close to my own heart, were the ones on literature and writing. There's a call to draw on genuine emotional responses for the creation of fiction in Fact Vs. Fiction, to defend freedom of choice in The Right to Read, and to make a strong case for short prose in the introduction to Best American Short Stories 2006. A more elaborate piece The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir to Writing and Life (a lively acknowledgement to her start at women's magazines) charts her writerly life, and forms the meat of the literary material in the book. Here, she touches on the massive joys and disappointments of being a writer, her struggling staccato beginnings, the writing residency, and friendships there, that changed her life, the utter despair with which she began her first book, her time as a student and teacher of the craft of "creative writing", the long-awaited rewards.

here's a danger you come away from This is the Story..., as with most memoirs, with a sense of coherent neatness that is perhaps ironically most untrue to life. That if this is indeed a 'finished puzzle,' then everything fits much too perfectly into place. No mention here of the controversy surrounding Truth and Beauty, an account of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, after which Lucy's sister Suellen called Patchett a "grief thief". Disquieting also that she tosses aside the horrifying environmental implications of holidaying in a fuel-guzzling Winnebago (mobile home) with a line: "The Winnebago set me free... People who don't like them have never been in one." Yet, as Patchett says, "We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species." The reason why her book is still an enlivening read is because, despite a tidy narrative, the emotional responses are raw and real. There is empathy. We have shared.

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