Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett
hardcover, 320 pages
a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the perfect book for me, that happy blend of subject, voice, and story. I was already enamored of Ann Patchett (I loved Bel Canto almost beyond words, and  State of Wonder was another favorite) but now I have that weird, totally illusory feeling that the author and I are really on intimate terms, the best of friends. That probably isn't so strange as it seems for someone who has always found immeasurable solace in books. I have learned more about life and people from novels than from life itself (hey, there's research to back that up). And I would much rather read a book than go to a party (yes, I'm an introvert). But I do make myself go to parties occasionally, and I usually do have fun.

Here are the reasons that Ann Patchett and I are best friends in the real but make-believe world of books: we both had disastrous first marriages and happy second ones; we both overlook the obvious when it comes to basic life lessons; we both read and fell in love with Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain at a formative age.

Of course one of us is a highly successful novelist who writes like an absolute dream, and one of us is a high school English teacher who writes a book blog and dreams of writing a novel. Still, we're almost like twins.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage won me over quite thoroughly--even though at first I thought this might not be my kind of book. It is a collection of previously published and newly published essays, a blend of memoir and literary chat that I wasn't convinced was going to hang together. But I found myself completely charmed by Patchett's authorial voice, which really is like that of a friend settling in for a series of cozy talks. Patchett is honest, self-deprecating, but artful. She writes beautifully and nakedly about writing--her own process, and what it takes to actually be a writer:
Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.
Patchett has, from her youth, made the decision to place her writing at the top of her list of priorities. She has figured out a few things about the art and craft of writing, and in "The Getaway Car," she puts them on the page for the reader. "Write it out. Tell the truth. Stack up the pages. Learn to write by writing." She also reminds the reader of what must be true, since so many writers say it in so many ways: "If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say." Patchett was fortunate to study with three influential writers, Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks, and she shares the lessons she learned from each of these very different teachers.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage touches on writing, solitude, opera, friendship, and divorce. Patchett tells the story of her independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in "The Bookstore Strikes Back." Another reason Ann Patchett and I are secret besties who will never meet: she opened an independent bookstore in Nashville because her city didn't have a bookstore and needed one. And because she believed in readers and books, and she believed that readers and books will always need each other. Also, Ann Patchett is my forever friend because when Eudora Welty died, she picked up the phone and told a friend "I'm going to the funeral," even though she didn't actually know Eudora Welty. She just needed to pay homage to her and her writing.

And in the way that everything is connected, especially books and writers and readers, the friend she called was Barry Moser, the incredibly gifted artist who is married to independent bookseller Emily Crowe. And Emily and her husband went to the funeral too. (Emily writes about books at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads). 

The essay I loved most of all, that I marked up the most, dropped food on, and cried over, was the title essay. "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" is the most breathtakingly perfect essay in the collection, and it is memoir but with the perfect arc of story and all the emotion of a novel. Here is one of my favorite passages in the essay, and I have to admit that Patchett could have been writing this about me:
It was as if I had been born before Freud. I existed in a world without psychology, and by psychology I'm not talking about therapy or analysis....I though 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 you could make it just the way you wanted it. 
Yes, exactly.

So, I loved this book, and I'm not sure whether I loved this book because it really was the perfect book for me, or maybe I loved this book because Ann Patchett is such a good writer that she made me feel as though she was writing this book just for me. Anyway, either way, get this book.

Below, just two of the places you can go on the internet to find out more about Ann Patchett and her bookstore Parnassus Books.
Ann Patchett
Parnassus Books


As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Well, this is embarrassing. Didn't expect to see my name in this post. I've been meaning to read this book for a few months now--my husband read it on vacation this past summer--but one thing or another keeps interfering. But there's one thing you said about Patchett's writing, that "happy blend of subject, voice, and story" that is exactly what I've been trying to say ever since reading her, but which you have put ever so eloquently and succinctly.

I think Ann is very honest with her writing, and she turns that spotlight on herself, never shying away from the uncomfortable or less than flattering bits. And yet she's never sensationalist--which is why I think so many people, including me, find a real intimacy with her and are slightly surprised that the universe is keeping such predestined friends apart.

bibliophiliac said...

@Emily-hope you don't mind the mention! I just thought it was such a wonderful example of serendipity. And yes, I love the way you say that--predestined friends. That's one of the many, many things I love about being a reader. I know that George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans and I are dear friends separated only by centuries, and ocean, and death.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

You know, it's a funny thing. That feeling of predestined friendship is something I felt mostly with characters as a younger reader and something I feel mostly with authors as a more mature reader. Is that, by any chnce, the way it was/is for you?

bibliophiliac said...

@Emily-Absolutely. There are writers that I feel I know so well, writers who I have that predestined friendship at the soul-level, and most of them are long-dead. That is the wonderful thing about reading--I can have that conversation of the mind with Charlotte Bronte and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Zora Neale Hurston. This latest book by Ann Patchett makes me feel that, out of respect for that predestined friendship, of course I will now read every book she's ever published.

Andi said...

I actually read one of her memoirs (Truth and Beauty) before I started reading her fiction, and for me that's often a great way to "get to know" an author. I did the same thing with Paul Auster. I can't wait to pick this one up!

bibliophiliac said...

@Andi-I read Truth and Beauty after I had already read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face and was gobsmacked. I keep that book in my classroom and keep hoping some teenage girl (or boy) will GET it! Oh, I just thought of another example of what you are saying: Nuala O'Faolain...her memoir Are You Somebody is amazing and every since reading it I have been hopelessly dedicated to her. Sadly, she passed away far too young.

Lisa said...

I loved this one, too. You do really come away feeling like you know Patchett, don't you. My favorite was Love Sustained; such incredible love for her grandmother!

Kerry M said...

Confession: I've never read Patchett.

But this post absolutely makes me regret that, and want to fix it ASAP. I met her briefly at Parnassus when I was in Nashville last year, and asked her to sign a copy of The Patron Saint of Liars, which I chose solely because it has such a wonderful title. She inscribed it with something like, "I wrote this book so long ago now I can't even tell you if it's good," which just made me love her all the more.

I really need to get on the Patchett train, it seems. Thanks for the much-needed kick in the pants on that!

bibliophiliac said...

@Kerry-I really want to make a trip to Nashville, just to go to Parnassus. I need to go on a bookstore pilgrimage.

You really do need to read Patchett. Her novels Bel Canto and State of Wonder are just so, so good. Do it!

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Hi! Just wanted to drop by again after I read the essay collection to say thank you for reviewing it, which was the prompt I needed to pick it up to read. It made it to my Best-of list for 2013 and I linked to your review in my post this morning.