Thank you to Laila at Big Reading Life who introduced me to This is the Story of a Happy Marriage! This is a collection of essays written by Ann Patchett that run the gamut of her life, which is surprisingly relatable. I listened to this on audio book and while it was amazing to hear these essays in Patchett’s own voice, I was disappointed that I couldn’t highlight passages as I went along. Now I’m going to have to buy this book because the essays were so good that I’m going to need to make some marginalia!
These stories detail her life as a young freelance writer, going through the LAPD training school, opening Parnassus (her independent bookstore in Nashville), the illnesses of her beloved dog and amazing grandmother, a marriage, a divorce, a second marriage, and so much more.
There were several essays on writing and her life as a writer which I initially thought would be my favorites. But in my opinion, the story on her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy was the most compelling. Ann’s book, Truth and Beauty, was chosen as the summer read for Clemson University’s incoming freshmen and the backlash was intense. The bible belt of the south pushed back on this pick because some felt that it was too pornographic, glamorized drugs and adultery, and written in an omniscient voice. (Did that last one throw you? Being from Texas, this argument sounded familiar. For some, writing in an omniscient voice is the writer trying to play god, which is sinful.)
In reality, Patchett’s book told about her friendship with Grealy, who was diagnosed with a deadly cancer as a young child and needed to have half of her jaw removed. Despite many reconstructive surgeries, her face still bore the evidence of her childhood illness. Patchett and Grealy met as undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence, where Grealy amazed her with her spunk, gusto, and zeal for life. It sounds like their friendship was one for the history books and they enjoyed being young together, which was something that the parents of Clemson students weren’t happy with their children reading about.
This collection also includes the speech that she gave to that incoming class, which was incredible. As someone that grew up in rural southeast Texas, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear when I started my undergraduate degree. She encouraged reading as the greatest form of exploration and understanding of the world and advised the students not to shy away from what was controversial, but to embrace it and understand it and let it help shape their viewpoints.
These essays were amazing and I fiercely binged on them. Even if you’re not typically an “essay person,” I think that nearly everyone will find something in here that will appeal to them, especially if you’re someone that has ever loved, lost, worked toward a goal, or felt unfairly criticized (so yes, everyone).
The downside of this book is that Patchett lists several books worth reading and you’ll confirm your suspicion that you’ll need to read her entire backlist, which means that you might feel a little spark of depression when you realize (yet again) that there are so many books to read in this world and you’ve only scratched the surface. Perhaps I’m projecting, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.