I have never been a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction.
But when I saw that she had a new collection of essays out, I thought I'd give them a try. For one thing, I am a sucker for a good essay. For another, I was intrigued by the title: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
This is a collection of essays that were previously published in a variety of sources, including Granta and for Audible.com. And, ironically, the title essay turned out to be my least favorite essay in the whole thing. I'm always searching for good essays about relationships, marriage, parenting, etc., and I can't say this one spoke to me in any way. It's about how Patchett, after growing up a child of divorce and living through the break-up of her first marriage, decided she wanted nothing further to do with marriage. This was awkward when she met and dated a man she did love, and who did want to get married. However, they stayed together for many years, until a health scare her partner suffered made her change her mind and get married. So what's the takeaway? Well, here's a story from her time when she was thinking she probably had to get out of her first marriage:
"Standing waist deep in the swimming pool at Yaddo, I received a gift--it was the first decent piece of instruction about marriage I had ever been given in my twenty-five years of life. 'Does your husband make you a better person?' Edra asked.
There I was in that sky-blue pool beneath a bright blue sky, my fingers breaking apart the light on the water, and I had no idea what she was talking about.
'Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?' she said, running down her list. 'Does he make you better?'
'That's not the question,' I said. 'It's so much more complicated than that.'
'It's not more complicated than that, she said. 'That's all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?'" (p. 249.)
So of course she concludes that her second husband does in fact, make her better. And that it is just that simple.
So why does that bug me? It just does. I don't believe marriage is actually that simple. I think that's a lovely thing you might want to embroider on a pillow or put on a coffee mug, but I think it's entirely wrong.
But there's some other essays here that merit a look. Patchett is best when talking about love, actually, when she talks about the love she has for her grandma (who she spent a lot of time actually physically caring for) and the love she has for a former teacher of hers, a nun from her Catholic school. In the essay "The Mercies," she talks about Sister Nena, and how she got to know and help her later in life. And that essay, I'll admit it, made me cry:*
"So ferocious is my love for Sister Nena that I can scarcely understand it myself, but I try. Hers is the brand of Catholicism I remember from my childhood, a religion of good works and very little discussion.
'I like the Catholic Church,' she says to me sometimes.
'Good thing,' I say, which always makes her laugh. I think that she is everything I have ever loved about our religion distilled down to fit into one person, everything about the faith that is both selfless and responsible: bringing soup to the sick; visiting the widowed husbands of her friends who have died; sticking with the children who are slow to learn and teaching them how to read..." p. 304.
So, uneven, but worth a look. I won't read any more of her fiction, but if she ever comes out with another nonfiction collection, I'll try it.
*Although I've been a crying mess lately in general. Getting older and tireder must also be making my tear ducts more overactive?