Ann Patchett’s new book, her ninth in the past two decades — including the novels “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder” — is a grab-bag, a collection of miscellaneous nonfiction about various matters, all of them revolving around herself. As a novelist — a very popular novelist, it should be added — she is notable for eschewing strongly autobiographical raw material, but as an essayist she turns her considerable prose gifts directly on Square One. In her nonfiction as in her fiction, she is very big on epiphanies. She isn’t exactly a sentimentalist — she has a tough sense of humor that she doesn’t mind aiming at herself — but she does like happy endings, and no matter what she’s writing about, she usually finds a way to arrive at one.
This lends a certain sameness to the 22 pieces collected in “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” She tells us in her brief introduction that she served her writer’s apprenticeship doing freelance pieces for eight years for Seventeen magazine, then moved to Elle and Vogue and Bridal Guide; in other words, she learned how to write as a writer for women’s magazines. It is not a sexist comment to note that these magazines share a style and an outlook that for obvious reasons are directed at what their editors perceive to be the interests and tastes of women and, more narrowly, middle- and upper-middle-class American women. By the rules of this style, it’s not enough to tell a story, which Patchett invariably does very well, but that story must lead to an epiphany or, if you will, a moral, usually an uplifting one and, if at all possible, one that plucks gently at the reader’s heartstrings. As she says:
“Whatever I’ve become as an essayist, this collection bears the stamp of a writer who got her start in women’s magazines: it is full of example and advice. I will never be a war correspondent or an investigative reporter, but the tradition I come from is an honorable one, and, at times, daunting. Many of the essays I’m proudest of were made from the things that were at hand — writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home.”
Thus, for example, when she goes to Los Angeles to write about the application process at that city’s famous Police Academy — the piece was originally published, in much shorter form, in The Washington Post Magazine — she provides an interesting and illuminating description of the challenges it presents, but her heart belongs to her father, who “worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for thirty-two years, retiring in 1990 at the level of Captain Three.” Patchett takes the test herself and passes it, but she never had any intention of actually joining the LAPD. Instead she winds things up with a double epiphany. Part One: “I was an insider, even if I wasn’t a cop, and my affection for the institution was inextricably bound to my affection for my father. My father was never in favor of my telling any story that didn’t have a happy ending.” So, Part Two: “I am proud of my father. I am proud of his life’s work. For a brief time I saw how difficult it would be to be a police officer in the city of Los Angeles, how easy it would be to fail at the job, as so many have failed. My father succeeded. He served his city well. I wanted to make note of that.”
Thus, too, she writes about divorce, in the title essay and in “The Sacrament of Divorce.” In the former she describes the lengthy process that resulted, quite to her surprise, in a happy second marriage, years after the end of a very unhappy first one, when she had concluded, “I was as grateful for divorce as I was for my own life, but it had done me in,” and she resolved that she was done with it: “If I never married again, I would never again be divorced. In short, I had found a way to beat the system. I was free.” Yet in “The Sacrament of Divorce” she manages to find an epiphany, the requisite happy ending:
“Divorce is in the machine now, like love and birth and death. Its possibility informs us, even when it goes untouched. And if we fail at marriage, we are lucky we don’t have to fail with the force of our whole life. I would like there to be an eighth sacrament: the sacrament of divorce. Like Communion, it is a slim white wafer on the tongue. Like confession, it is forgiveness. Forgiveness is important not so much because we’ve done wrong as because we feel we need to be forgiven. Family, friends, God, whoever loves us forgives us, takes us in again. They are thrilled by our life, our possibilities, our second chances. They weep with gladness that we did not have to die.”
Now that paragraph does not strike me, as the prose of Warren Gamaliel Harding struck H.L. Mencken, as “the worst English that I have ever encountered,” but it does call to mind part of Mencken’s further commentary: “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line. . . . It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.” It is full of moderately lovely sounds that signify almost nothing, and it is, for me, Patchett at her least attractive. The essay was published in 1996 in Vogue, after she had gone on to bigger and better things, but it and the many similar passages in this collection make clear that you can take the writer out of the women’s magazines, but you can’t always take the women’s magazines out of the writer.
The tart side of Patchett — and she really does have one — is far more appealing. Writing about adopting her beloved dog Rose but also about deciding not to have children, she makes exasperated mention of all the people who said, “Maybe you don’t even realize it. Clearly, you want a baby,” and then writes: “When did the mammals get confusing? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see the differences?. . . Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador and says, ‘Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there’s a guy who wants to have a son.’ A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, ‘You just wait.’ For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor when calling her do I say, ‘Come to Mama.’ ”
She can be equally tart when acknowledging that for years she made what might be called a classic woman’s mistake when plunging into her first marriage: “I thought that men were like houses, that you could buy one on the cheap that had potential and just fix it up, and that fixing it up was actually better than getting a house that was already good because then you could make it just the way you wanted it. In short, I was an idiot, but I was also twenty-two years old.” Her self-awareness is no less appealing when writing about a man whom she met many years later: “Karl was so handsome and charming and lost, there was something irresistible about him. But he wasn’t my type. I like men who could be found on the couch reading Proust in the middle of the day, men who were boyish and broke, who hung on to outdated student IDs, who rode bicycles and smoked at the same time.” Reader, she married him.
There is a lot in here about writing, much of it drawn from her experience as a writing student at Sarah Lawrence as an undergraduate and at the University of Iowa as a graduate student. She is less sentimental about these experiences than are many others — “The answer to how important a Master of Fine Arts degree is to becoming a fiction writer is, of course, not at all. The history of world literature is weighted heavily on the side of writers who put their masterpieces together without the benefit of two years of graduate school” — but she is very much in tune with the writers’ clubbiness that has emerged in the age of the writing schools, and she clearly delights in passing along plenty of advice to people who would like to join that club, no matter how blessed or unblessed they may be with actual writing talent, and of course that advice comes with an epiphany attached. To wit: “Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.” Yuck.
THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE
By Ann Patchett
Harper. 306 pp. $27.99