When Ann Patchett came home from school one day, there was a boy she’d never met in the kitchen. Turns out, he was one of four new step siblings. Her mother and his father had married, but they hadn’t yet told the six children who were now part of a blended family.
This might be why Patchett likes to write novels about people from very different walks of life thrown together in extreme circumstances – such as in Bel Canto, my favorite novel of hers about terrorists, an opera singer, and political and business leaders in a hostage situation. (See also my post about State of Wonder.)
It may also have had something to do with why, for a long while, she’d been committed to staying single. Ann’s mother had twice divorced and her grandmother had divorced. In fact, divorce was scattered liberally throughout her family tree.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of Ann Patchett’s personal essays, one of them about her early divorce and her relationship with the man who eventually became her second husband. It’s an honest, personally revealing, and entrancing story about love and commitment.
Marriage is a metaphor for the many happy relationships in Ann’s life, including relationships with her writing, her bookstore, her grandmother, the strong and nurturing Catholic nuns where she went to school, and her dog. There are essays about all of this and more in Ann’s new book, a fine collection of meditations about life, love, and fulfillment.
I especially enjoyed Ann’s essay about writing, “The Getaway Car,” and those of you who write will like it as well. She is not of the school that everyone has one great novel in them, as a woman Ann met at a family reunion insisted. Ann usually has enough good sense to avoid such conversations, but this time she gave in.
“Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? One five-minute mile? One algebraic proof?”
“No,” the woman said. But everyone has one great novel in them “because we each have the story of our life to tell.”
Ann does not agree and writes about how difficult it is to convey what we know on paper. This is what she has to say about writing a novel:
“I make up a novel in my head…I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose windows in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life…..
…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page….Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV…What I’m left with is a dry husk of my friend, a broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book……The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”
It stops most would-be writers cold.
Ann writes about the panic that set in when she sat down to write her first novel at a fine arts retreat, a story she’d been constructing in her imagination for a long while:
“Now that I was sitting still in front of a blank screen, I was appalled by all the things I hadn’t considered….until that minute I had never considered the actual narrative structure….what in the hell had I been doing all that time?”
She was tempted to throw out her idea altogether and start fresh, but an experienced writer told her to stay with her story.
“It was life-saving counsel,” Ann writes. “Without it, I could have spent the next seven months writing the first chapters of eighteen different novels, all of which I would have hated as much as I hated this one.”
There is another essay in the collection, “The Love Between the Two Women Is Not Normal,” that especially stands out for me. Ann had been best friends with Lucy Grealy, the acclaimed author of a memoir, “Autobiography of a Face.” Lucy had cancer of the jaw at age nine and 38 reconstructive surgeries. She died of a drug overdose, and Ann wrote a book about their friendship, Truth and Beauty. The book had been assigned to the incoming freshman class at Clemson University in 2006, and Ann was invited to speak there at the beginning of the school year.
All was well until a Clemson alum, whose nieces and a nephew were students there, objected to the book assignment. “The book contains a very extensive list of over-the-top sexual and antireligious references…The explicit message that this sends to the students is that they are encouraged to find themselves sexually.”
A hue and cry ensued. Many angry parents wanted another book chosen and Ann’s invitation rescinded, while most of the students and Clemson’s administration supported Ann and the book selection. The Clemson alum held a press conference the day before Ann appeared, distributed copies of bad reviews of her book posted by Amazon readers, and took out a full-page ad in the local paper. The ad, among other things, accused Clemson of the sexual harassment of freshmen students and suggested the assigned reading of Truth and Beauty was insensitive because a Clemson student had recently been raped and murdered.
When the day came for an extremely nervous and alarmed Ann to speak in Clemson’s coliseum, there were protests, and the administration had arranged for her to have a bodyguard.
Ann has included her Clemson speech, “The Right to Read,” in this collection of essays. Among other things, she said most of the freshmen students were old enough to vote and go to war and could make their own decisions about what to read and how they’d be influenced by it. She pointed out that if they had to be protected from Truth and Beauty, they’d most certainly need to be protected from Lolita and The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.
Weeks after her speech, it occurred to Ann many of the students in the audience had likely never read Tolstoy or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nabokov, and so they probably hadn’t understood what she was talking about.
As for me, I’m disturbed every time I hear about a protest of this nature over a book. If Patchett’s Truth and Beauty can cause such a furor, we live in a frightening world indeed.