The success of her 2001 novel Bel Canto transformed Ann Patchett into the rarest of writers: one who pays her bills with fiction. Until that point, Patchett had made her living by freelance work, writing non-fiction for magazines whose ephemerality she'd counter by preserving her articles in a big plastic bin. When fans started showing up at book signings bearing their own tattered copies and proclaiming these pieces' resonance, however, Patchett realized that the work she'd done to support her art might be art in its own right.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the collection that emerged from that plastic bin, the bin itself an unromantic but a fitting symbol for the book it made. Both bin and essays show Patchett as sensible, methodical, a writer who is concerned with water-proofing (see the essay Our Deluge, Drop by Drop). The bin underlines Patchett's advice to would-be writers that actual books are rarely created in fits of passion, and are usually more prosaic in their origins.
Patchett can trace the origin of this book back even further, to Seventeen magazine, where her non-fiction was first published in the mid-1980s. (The managing editor at the time was Roberta Myers, now editor-in-chief of Elle, whose letter to readers in the August, 2013, issue bore the headline, "Yes, Women's Magazines Can Do Serious Journalism. In Fact, We've Been Doing It For A While.") In her introduction, Patchett explains, "Whatever I've become as an essayist, this collection bears the stamp of a writer who got her start in women's magazines … [T]he tradition I come from is an honorable one and, at times, daunting."
While Patchett's work from magazines like Seventeen and Bridal Guide are not included in the collection ("those pieces were meant only for the young and the recently engaged"), she claims such publications as the site of her non-fiction apprenticeship. Her roots are evident, she points out, in that her essays are "full of example and advice." Her book's title certainly comes with didactic, self-help allusions, no doubt to attract readers seeking a guide to marital bliss.
But it's not only marriage that Patchett's advising about. She has tips for fiction writers in The Get-Away Car, provides a guide to backing up a Winnebago in My Road to Hell Was Paved and explains how to jump over a six-foot wall in an essay about her successful tryout for the LAPD Police Academy. In The Bookstore Strikes Back, she even discloses how a literary author might finagle a spot on the front page of The New York Times: Based on her own experience, that author should open an independent bookshop.
These are essays written over two decades, most first appearing in literary journals and magazines. Friendship, family, divorce and marriage are preoccupations, touching on personal experiences ranging from the ordinary (caring for her elderly grandmother, her devotion to her dog) to the extraordinary (threats against her during attempts to censor her memoir Truth & Beauty at a college in South Carolina).
Patchett expounds on her craft with the verve of Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, but with both feet on the ground. She also makes explicit her influence by Joan Didion, revealing in Do Not Disturb that she's been rereading all Didion's books, which shows, and works to her detriment because she isn't Joan Didion, which also shows. Though to be Joan Didion (who, it must be noted, got her start writing for Vogue) is a lot to ask of anyone, and some of Patchett's best essays are of Didion's calibre. She may well prove to be to the contemporary mythology of Tennessee what Didion is to California, with her own particular bent.
But Patchett does channel Didion in Fact Vs. Fiction when she writes, "We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species." And this is the triumph of her book, how it turns the self-help trope inside out. Ann Patchett doesn't have the answers, but what she has instead are stories and – like life itself – these can be more complicated and unfathomable than we'd ever believe of fiction.
And what of the happy marriage? According to Patchett, the formula is simple: "Wait until everyone you know gets divorced then get divorced yourself, find a divorced man, date him for eleven years, wait until you think his situation is terminal, and then marry him. It will not be terminal."
Now you know.
Kerry Clare is editor of the essay collection The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, forthcoming in the spring.