Book review: This is the story of a happy marriage, By Ann Patchett

Witty, warm reflections on life, love and art of fiction
  • @arifa_akbar

Ann Patchett has had a fairly uninterrrupted trajectory from her starting point at Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s – a hothouse for American's next great literary voices – to her feted status as a fiction writer today, most noteably for her fourth novel, Bel Canto (2001).

Her non-fiction, however, has received a rockier reception, especially after she published a book about her friend and writer, Lucy Greal. Truth and Beauty described Patchett's loss following Lucy's death at the age of 39, but for her sister, Suellen Greal, Patchett was nothing more than a "grief thief" who appropriated her memory for the purposes of publication.

The non-fiction works here, on Lucy and others close to Patchett, and on the art and craft of writing, do not deal with this controversy head-on (though "Fact vs. Fiction" touches on another scandal related to the book). But if there are writers who ruthlessly scavenge from real life, Patchett does not come across as one of them in these collected articles. Patchett started off as a hack for hire, writing about whatever was demanded from her in exchange for the financial freedom this afforded her in her (then unpublished) fiction.

There is the odd occasion when she puts herself through experiences specifically for the purpose of transposing them into print (she trains for, and takes, the LAPD's academy test so she can write about scaling a six-foot wall). But for the most part, these pieces are considered reflections on life, relationships, home and family, spoken in a voice that is gentle and respectful, even in its sniping.

She manages to shed light on how terrible a failure her (year long) first marriage was without demonising her estranged ex-husband. She snipes at herself, repeating the early criticism of a friend about her writing: that it is clever but sometimes shallow. So she endeavours to try harder and be truer in her work. One gets the sense of a deeply ambitious writer, and also a likeable one with integrity.

The best work is witty and quietly piercing. She tells us how to write well – practice, practice, practice –

without sounding annoyingly didactic. Most surprisingly of all, she speaks about the love and happiness of her second and enduring marriage with immense beauty and insight, and without an iota of smugness.