Book Review: 'This is the Story of a Happy Marriage'
by Erich Hilkert
Dec 24, 2013 | 1973 views |  0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ann Patchett’s latest release, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” is a nonfiction collection, at times funny, at times heartbreakingly sad, and at its core, a work of brutal honesty.

Patchett, a product of the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is a New York Times bestselling author of fiction, but this isn’t her first foray into nonfiction.

In fact, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” includes essays that span the course of 16 years in a wide range of publications from Vogue to The Wall Street Journal to Gourmet to South Carolina Review.

Indeed, Patchett is a versatile writing talent.

In “The Getaway Car,” we find out that Patchett originally wanted to be a poet as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, but it was in her struggles that she discovered she preferred fiction. This becomes a running theme of the collection: it is only through our struggles that we become better human beings.

In “How to Read a Christmas Story,” Patchett struggles with Christmas because it serves as a powerful reminder of her parents’ divorce.

As a child, she sees four relative strangers, her stepsiblings, each Christmas, her stepfather is a little sore because his birthday doesn’t receive a proper celebration given that it happens to fall on Christmas, and Patchett hears from her dad on the opposite side of the country by way of phone.

One Christmas her father reads her a story of an orphan who gave away the lone present she received to someone who needed it more. Patchett writes that her father’s reading of the story was the greatest Christmas gift of all. As an adult, she is able to let go of all of the painful memories, but hangs on to the one pleasant Christmas memory: the story that made her feel her dad really understood her.

Patchett’s story is enjoyable because she admits to not being a big fan of Christmas, even though most people couldn’t think of a better holiday than Christmas.

But it isn’t as though Patchett is Mr. Grinch, she has valid reasons for not enjoying Christmas.

Patchett’s nonfiction is not only well-written from a technical standpoint, but it is the sort of writing that draws you in, makes you forget what you’re doing, and makes you forget you are supposed to be taking notes for your review.

Patchett understands and even shares with the reader that one of the key elements to great writing is that, on some level, humans can relate to others’ experiences on an emotional level.

Maybe you are a fan of Christmas, but maybe there was one holiday you’d rather forget because a family relative did something embarrassing or you fought with your girlfriend.

The point being: everyone, at least somewhere along the line, can relate to Patchett’s holiday horror.

“The Getaway Car” serves as both memoir and a guidebook for aspiring writers.

Even to non-writers, there is an appeal both in reading about Patchett’s college education and learning beyond the confines of the classroom and also because even when she dispenses advice about writing, it is often advice that is applicable to other domains.

For instance, she doesn’t believe in writer’s block, admonishing young writers to try different avenues of writing if they feel stuck. She is, as always, honest.

Writing is hard work that requires dedication just like any other craft. Any musicians reading the book will recognize her wisdom. Becoming a great musician takes an endless amount of hours of practice, and the same could be said for a long list of other career paths.

In addition to being a well-known author of fiction, as well as an author of nonfiction, Patchett also happens to be a co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville.

She discusses this experience in “The Bookstore Strikes Back.”

Naysayers bang the doomsday gongs to warn Patchett that opening a bookstore is a bad idea, that bookstores are a thing of the past.

But Patchett proves them wrong, as Parnassus Books turns out to be a success. The bottom line is people will pay for a quality product, and in retail, developing relationships with the customer is critical. To offer personalized recommendations, exude passion, and engage in conversation is something Amazon simply does not offer, and that is why Patchett believes smaller bookstores can still be successful.

I must confess I didn’t enjoy all 22 stories in this collection, but I can honestly say I did enjoy 21 of them, and that speaks to the strength of this collection.

I could have done without “Tennessee” because it simply did not hold the same emotional payoff for me as the other stories. All of the stories in this collection are personal, but some are intensely so while others, such as “Tennessee,” do not carry the same pull.

One might not expect much from “Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2006,” but even this is memorable.

Patchett includes an anecdote about meeting one of her favorite authors, Eudora Welty, and later attending her funeral. It is a mere introduction, but Patchett leaves the reader with a lasting impression of the lack of currency afforded to short story writers and why she believes that is unfortunate.

The more intensely personal stories, such as the title story, will likely remain lodged in my brain for quite some time.

Patchett shows courage in the title story, confessing some of her most vulnerable mistakes, but it is also a story of redemption.

While Patchett’s first marriage was a failure, she is much more hesitant to get married a second time (so hesitant she waits 11 years before finally committing to marriage the second time), having become wiser.

She has learned the key to marriage is as simple as this: Does the other person make you better and do you make them better (admittedly, simple in a complicated sort of way)?

Again, this is a story that is easy to relate to, even for those of us who have never been married. Surely we can relate to Patchett’s hesitation due to the vulnerability that comes through relationships, especially if we’ve experienced a failed relationship.

There are plenty more works in this collection that are full of emotional vitality and a remarkable candor. Upon completing “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” you feel as though you know Patchett on a personal level and, as she felt when her father read her a Christmas story, she understands.