Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Title: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Author: Ann Patchett
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13, maybe? No sex, no violence, no offensive language, but it's a book that probably wouldn't appeal to a kid

I've read several of Ann Patchett's novels over the years (Bel Canto, Run) and I fell in love with her when I read State of Wonder a few years ago. So when I saw that she had a new book out, I ordered it ASAP. I knew that this book was nonfiction, but I wasn't sure what to expect. Perhaps a memoir about marriage? I knew that she'd been married and divorced when she was young, and later remarried, so I was expecting a straightforward story about her marriages.

That's not what This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is. And, I guess, it is. The book is actually a compilation of pieces that Patchett has written over the years. She starts the book by talking about the process of its creation. For many years, as she was trying to establish herself as a novelist, she paid the bills by writing nonfiction pieces for magazines. When someone suggested that she publish some of these essays and articles as a compilation, she read through them, picked a bunch, put them in chronological order, added a few new essays to fill in the gaps, and published.

What I didn't expect was that I would learn so much about writing from reading this book. Patchett studied writing at Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, then taught writing and had many writing fellowships, and lots of what she does is talk about her process as a writer. I often worry that I'm living an interesting enough life to be a great writer, but I think Patchett would say (and I would agree) that it's not about living an interesting life as much as it's about doing the work of being a writer (putting pen to paper every day). I particularly loved her stories about her grandmother and her trip in a Winnebago, but every essay was great. Although they don't seem to necessarily have a unifying thread, they come together in a way that gives us as a reader a really rounded picture of her as a writer.

As I was reading, I kept comparing this book to Mary Roach's My Planet. In both cases, the books are written by writers whose work I admire, but I find This is the Story of a Happy Marriage to be a much more successful compilation. The difference, I think, is that the essays in My Planet are all written for the same publication (Reader's Digest), and are all roughly the same length and in the same format. The fact that the pieces in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage are written for a wide variety of publications (and some are even transcripts of talks) make for a much more varied, more interesting reading experience.

As a writer, I'm mostly just sad that I'm done reading the book. While I was reading, I had great ideas for two new novels and for a couple of essays, and I've done exactly nothing with any of them. I miss my grad school days with its deadlines and grades-- they were always a great motivator to get me writing.


anna said...

I loved this book too. I loved the Winnebago article. I thought she painted a really interesting picture of being a writer. This book really made me want to read more short stories too. I thought she had a great sense of humor in these articles. Reading this made me want to visit Nashville just to visit her bookstore.

By the way, have you read The Good Lord Bird? I just finished it and would love to get your opinion of it.

Shelah said...

I haven't read The Good Lord Bird, Anna. I haven't even heard of it. I will have to look into it. Since finishing this, I downloaded stories from Alice Munro and BJ Novak, so I think I caught the short story bug too. And I have a place where we could stay if you ever want to make a pilgrimage to the bookstore!