I love Ann Patchett’s fiction. I have read three of her six novels — “Bel Canto,” “Run,” and “State of Wonder” — and enjoyed them so thoroughly that she ranks exceptionally high among my favorite authors. Her first three novels — “The Patron Saint of Liars,” “Taft,” and “The Magician’s Assistant” — hold priority spots on my to-read list. And I’m reading “Getting What We Came For,” the collection of short stories she wrote as her 1987 master’s thesis for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (one of a treasure-trove of such theses in the University of Iowa Libraries collection).
I mention all of this to lend some heft to this assertion: I may well love Ann Patchett’s non-fiction even more. I first had this thought while listening to Patchett’s own unabridged recording of “Truth & Beauty,” her account of her remarkable friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, author of “Autobiography of a Face.” The idea surfaced again as I read her new collection of essays, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” (Harper, 307 pages, $28.99).
As Patchett reveals in the collection’s introduction, for many years she supported her fiction writing endeavors by writing essays for a variety of publications, beginning with “Seventeen.” She has continued to accept select assignments even as her reputation as a fiction writer has grown, and the new book collects a cross-section of her efforts over time and from outlets as various as the “New York Times Magazine,” “The Bark,” “Outside,” and “Gourmet.” I’ll admit some disappointment in the fact that none of her earliest essays are included in the book — I’d love to see how Patchett employed her considerable gifts for a teen-targeted magazine — but that’s where all dissatisfaction ends.
Aside from Patchett’s beautiful, impeccable writing, what makes these essays special is her ability to connect any subject to personal experiences that resonate with the reader. In “My Road to Hell Was Paved” she uses an assignment about RVing to share how her relationship with her now-husband was brought back from the brink of dissolution as they traveled together. In “The Wall,” a magnificent piece in which Patchett recounts her efforts to qualify for the Los Angeles Police Department Academy, she lays bare her love and respect for her father, a longtime member of the LAPD. Those are just two of the book’s many delights. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.