As a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.
It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.
Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:
“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. My short stories and novel have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.”
We read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.
“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”
It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.
She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.
She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.
“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”
“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”
And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.
The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:
“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”