Some things are meant to happen, and some things just aren’t. I’ve had that thought many times in my life, and it occurred to me again last night as I sat at the bar of a crowded restaurant in Louisiana, eating dinner. With no one special to talk to, I was watching the last quarter of a college football game that involved two teams I had no real interest in. But as Georgia, led by their gutsy quarterback Aaron Murray, began to come back from a 20-point deficit to Auburn, I began to care about the outcome, and when Murray risked his neck to dive into the end zone to give Georgia the lead, I hooted gleefully. A couple of minutes later, with less than a minute to go and Auburn facing a fourth-and-eighteen, it seemed like the game was over, and I was feeling the pleasant satisfaction of having rooted for the underdogs, who were about to win.
Auburn of course threw a Hail Mary, and then the unthinkable happened: two Georgia defenders tipped the ball and it landed in the hands of the Auburn receiver, who trotted straight into the end zone. With 25 seconds left, Georgia tried valiantly to come back again, but I think everyone watching the game had the same thought: Impossible. This must have been fate.
Georgia lost. And as I reflected on the notion of fate and recent messages I’d received, I knew what I needed to do. I paid my bill and went straight to the nearest bookstore and bought Ann Patchett’s new collection of essays, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE. Based on what I already knew about this book, I knew I couldn’t wait another minute. A friend had sent me a link to NPR’s excellent review, which made it sound delicious (Thanks, Margaret Lin!). And obviously the title is enticing. I had a feeling that there would be something in there for me (and probably for many of my friends), and I was right, I was engrossed from the first page. I had to force myself to close it while driving back to the hotel.
If you are a writer or have ever dreamed of becoming one, you will likely devour this book as rapidly as I did. Starting with the introduction, which tells the story of how the book came to be, Patchett opens the door into what it’s like to live a writer’s life, noting: “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.” Indeed. Along with various odd jobs, she wrote magazine articles for many years to pay her bills. And she found that the discipline of nonfiction writing informed and strengthened her fiction writing.
Patchett’s voice throughout is clear, decisive, compassionate, and funny. In “How to Read a Christmas Story,” for example, she remarks: “I have never liked Christmas. In my family, there were happy Thanksgivings and tolerable Easters, but Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor.” This becomes a story about years of failed gift-giving and one true, meaningful gift—a story—that had a powerful impact on her life. She goes on to explain how she became a writer (“I was always going to be a writer….”) and offers useful advice for anyone contemplating this career path.
It is difficult to say what I like best about this book. Maybe it boils down to this: I admire both the delivery and the content. Ann Patchett’s writing is beautiful, and her dogged quest for a meaningful life is equally compelling.