THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, by Ann Patchett. Harper, 306 pp., $27.99.
Prior to the publication of her breakout novel, "Bel Canto," in 2001, Ann Patchett made her living writing for magazines; of Seventeen she says, "I learned how to write an essay there, just as I had learned how to write fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop." "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" collects 22 previously published essays, from early freelance days through 2012.
Though many readers have wearied of memoirs of trouble and dysfunction, it is even harder for a nonfiction writer to pull off happiness and success. It is a feat that Ann Patchett remains so lovable as narrator, and so engaging as a storyteller, when writing about her excellent career, personal life, dog, and husbands. The title essay is a love story with the twists and turns, larger-than-life characters and pure sweetness of a Harlequin romance; it includes an actual miracle, which is how you know it has to be true. No fiction writer is crazy enough to have dead cardiac tissue mysteriously regenerate after one achieves one's heart's desire. (Well, maybe Alice Hoffman.)
Patchett's nonfiction voice is marked by an equal lack of braggadocio and false humility. She knows the importance of obstacles in the shape of a narrative and her foreshadowing and pacing are masterful. From the title essay: "the story of my marriage, which is the great joy and astonishment of my life, is too much like a fairy tale -- the German kind, unsweetened by Disney. It is the story of children wandering alone through a dark forest, past shadowy animals with razor teeth and yellow eyes, towards an accident that is punishable by years and years of sleep. It is an unpleasant business, even if it ends in love. I am setting out to tell the story of a happy marriage, my marriage, which does not end in divorce, but every single thing about it starts there."
Who doesn't want to read that?
Patchett's gift invigorates essays ranging from magazine-y pieces about traveling in a motor home, trying to join the Los Angeles Police Department, and staying alone for a week in a fancy hotel, to memoirish ones about her relationship with her grandmother and with the elderly nun who taught her to read. (It was a surprisingly difficult process.) Several pieces discuss literature and the writing life, including the saga of the serious flap at Clemson University when "Truth and Beauty," Patchett's account of her friendship with the late author Lucy Grealy, was assigned to the freshman class.
To read a collection of personal essays is a lot like making a friend. Ann Patchett is a friend you will be glad to have; if she does make you a little jealous, it's in a pleasant, wistful way.