This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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by Ann Patchett

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Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto examines her deepest commitments: to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Together these essays, previously published in The Atlantic, Harper's,

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Blending literature and memoir, Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto examines her deepest commitments: to writing, family, friends, dogs, books, and her husband in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Together these essays, previously published in The Atlantic, Harper's, Vogue, and the Washington Post, form a resonant portrait of a life lived with loyalty and with love.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes us into the very real world of Ann Patchett's life. Stretching from her childhood to the present day, from a disastrous early marriage to a later happy one, it covers a multitude of topics, including relationships with family and friends, and charts the hard work and joy of writing, and the unexpected thrill of opening a bookstore.

As she shares stories of the people, places, ideals, and art to which she has remained indelibly committed, Ann Patchett brings into focus the large experiences and small moments that have shaped her as a daughter, wife, and writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Audio
Patchett’s collection of essays covers a variety of subjects including love, divorce, pets, writing, death, and a whole lot more. Fans and newcomers will find this a delightful mix of reflection, observation, amusement, and sincerity. In this audio edition, Patchett proves entirely capable as narrator and maintains listener attention for the duration. Her familiarity with each piece allows for great emphasis and timing, and provides for a smooth reading and intimate performance. Her voice also perfectly captures each essay’s tone, and she knows exactly how to deliver punch lines—which makes listening all the more enjoyable than reading. A Harper hardcover. (Nov.)
Library Journal - Audio
★ 02/15/2014
This work collects essays written by Patchett (State of Wonder) for various publications over the course of her career. The collection covers a broader range of topics than the title might indicate, including writing, dogs, reading, caring for a beloved grandmother, and, of course, marriage, both failed and successful. What is common to so many of the essays is a concern with the things we devote ourselves to in life, whether it be a career, another person, or a beloved pet. Patchett writes with humor that is both wry and down to earth but never stands in the way of the emotion inherent in the subject matter. Listeners are likely to especially enjoy "The Wall," which explores Patchett's relationship with her father, who spent his career on the Los Angeles police force, through her attempt to join the L.A. Police Academy. "The Mercies," which tells the story of Patchett's friendship with her elementary school teacher Sister Nena is another highlight. The author reads the audiobook, delivering her stories in a conversational tone that complements and enlivens the writing. VERDICT This collection of highly polished essays is an easy listen that also provides plenty of rich food for thought and will appeal to a broad audience. ["Patchett provides insight and entertainment for all kinds of readers, and this title will be an asset to any library," read the review of the Harper hc, LJ 10/15/13.]—Heather Malcolm, Bow, WA
Ann Patchett's This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage takes the cake for the most inviting title of the season. This collection of mostly personal essays addresses a range of subjects sure to spark discussions, including the generational fallout of divorce, which fed into Patchett's early decision not to have children; the parallels she flags between her fiercely protective love for her dog and her grandmother at the end of their long lives; and her inadvertent emergence as a spokesperson for independent bookstores.

About that title essay, it is actually a story of how a family legacy of unhappy marriages and divorce -- from her great-grandparents' down to her own -- left Patchett so wary of the institution that she fended off proposals from her second husband for eleven years. She finally relented when she thought he might die of what turned out to be a misdiagnosed heart ailment. She writes that her marriage to Karl VanDevender, a Nashville doctor sixteen years her senior, is "the great joy and astonishment of my life." Among its surprises: "It was like finding another wing in a house you had happily lived in for years. It was simply a bigger love than I had imagined."

In her graceful, forthright introduction, Patchett tells how she supported herself with freelance journalism for a variety of publications during the early years of her career, because her short stories and novels "were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was." Working her way up from Seventeen and Bridal Guide to Vogue, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly, she has continued to write nonfiction articles even after the success of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, because she enjoys the constraints, especially in contrast with the freedom of fiction. To explain, she enlists a metaphor that may well be a byproduct of her research for Bel Canto: "Like a soprano's boned corset, the built-in restrictions provided both support and something to push against."

Patchett acknowledges that her book "bears the stamp of a writer who got her start in women's magazines: it is full of example and advice." It also bears the stamp of someone writing from the vantage point of success. With several bestsellers under her belt -- not to mention the happy relationship of the title -- Patchett obviously feels comfortable enough to share some of her mistakes (most notably her brief, disastrous first marriage); glimpses of the writing life (including book tours and unusual research junkets); and tips on what's worked for her (a trusted reader, and denying the very possibility of writer's block). Fortunately, even "The Getaway Car," a long "Practical Memoir about Writing and Life," which offers few unique insights, is sufficiently down-to-earth to avoid egregious smugness. (Example: "No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It's simply not worth it.")

Several essays relate to Truth & Beauty, her searing memoir about her intense seventeen-year friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy -- whose own powerful memoir, Autobiography of a Face, chronicled her grueling battle with a childhood cancer that obliterated her jaw. They met in their first year at Sarah Lawrence College and went on to study writing at the University of Iowa together. In her 2005 Convocation Address for The Miami University of Ohio, Patchett considers the differences between fact and fiction and notes, "Both Autobiography of a Face and Truth & Beauty are books about how much compassion is needed to get through a life. They are also books about the value of friendship."

The following year, Patchett sounded a similar note in her Convocation Address to first-year students at Clemson University in South Carolina. But this time, she also had to defend Truth & Beauty against surprisingly virulent attacks from conservatives; they complained that it was a poor choice of required reading for incoming students, because they found both Grealy's life and her close friendship with Patchett unwholesome. Somewhat redundantly, this volume includes a recap of the brouhaha and a summary of Patchett's response, followed by her actual speech. She eloquently pushes back, stressing the importance of friendship and urging students to "go to the primary source to make your decisions?it is never enough to rely on other people's ideas."

The best essays are weighted toward the back of the book and showcase the centrality of compassion in Patchett's life. She is clearly a born nurturer, always taking care of someone -- whether Lucy, her grandmother, her beloved dog, or the now-aged nun who determinedly taught her to read in third grade. In "The Mercies," published in Granta in 2011, she writes movingly about the pleasure of lavishing delicacies from Whole Foods on Sister Nena, who at seventy-eight still holds fast to her vows of poverty, obedience, and service.

Patchett's devotion to her grandmother is similarly uplifting. As the old woman descended into dementia, instead of lamenting the loss of the person she'd grown up loving, "I resolved to love the woman I had."

The lessons gleaned from her divorce are equally clear-eyed. When she was indecisive about leaving her miserable, ill-advised first marriage, a friend asked: "Does your husband make you a better person?? It's not more complicated than that?. That's all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?" How's that for a bar for assessing relationships? Surely grist for the book group mill there.

An intriguing aspect of this volume, which was written piecemeal, for various publications, is watching how Patchett's telling of some stories change over time. After several cursory accounts of her divorce in earlier essays, in "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," written for Audible Originals in 2011, Patchett reveals an affair begun at Yaddo that enabled her to leave her first husband. Her confession opens the way for this lovely leap: "More than twenty years later I think: the house was on fire and I jumped out a window instead of going through the front door. How I left is not important to me now. I got out."

Similarly, in "Dog Without End," the 2012 tribute she wrote for Vogue, Patchett corrects an earlier "glossed-over version" of how she came by her dog, Rose. She confesses that she essentially snatched the foundling pup from a kid's arms. Why is she coming clean, we wonder? Guilt? Perhaps. But look how honesty heightens the impact of this zinger: "Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It's everything in between we live for."

As for what to read alongside This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, both Truth & Beauty and Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face expand on some of the themes in this collection. Great fiction tends to sidestep wedded bliss -- though the exception of Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety springs to mind. Courtship romances from Jane Austen onward involve working through various obstacles towards happy unions, but usually bring down the curtain before the first glow subsides. In nonfiction, happy marriages tend to be concentrated in spousal eulogies such as John Bayley's Elegy for Iris, Calvin Trillin's About Alice, and Julian Barnes's Levels of Life. All of which leads us to wonder, do happy marriages lack the requisite drama for great literature?

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
The New York Times Book Review - Wendy Lesser
I hope it will not sound disrespectful if I say that I read this book for fun. Yes, I was assigned to review it, and, yes, I assembled all my usual reviewer's equipment (note cards, pen, critical faculties) before sitting down to read. But when I got to the end of the book, I realized I hadn't taken a single note. I had been so engaged by Ann Patchett's multifaceted story, so lured in by her confiding voice, that I forgot I was on the job.
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
Ms. Patchett's style is not overly confessional, but it is beguiling in ways that make her sound like someone you'd want to know. Her new book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, reinforces the impression of an uncommonly kind person who is not above self-interest but loves books, her grandmother, the toughest nun who taught her in grade school, her husband and her darling dog…This book is about so much more than love, marriage or divorce…
Publishers Weekly
A collection of 22 essays (including a couple of commencement addresses) previously published by accomplished novelist and memoirist Patchett (State of Wonder; What Now?; etc.) offer generous glimpses of her rural, divorced Catholic Tennessee background and winding but determined route to becoming a writer (“The Getaway Car”). Writing nonfiction, first for Seventeen and later a host of magazines as her network of editors expanded, was her bread and butter in the early days, and she has an authoritative, straightforward voice in exploring some of the milestones of her life, such as her deep love for her dog, Rose (not to be confused with the desire for a baby), learning from scratch how to love opera in order to write her bestseller Bel Canto, preparing with her ex-cop father’s guidance for the grueling L.A. Police Academy exams (“The Wall”), her startling resolve to start up a Nashville bookstore when no other bookstore was left in her hometown, and her painful but merciful segue from divorce to remarriage. The public addresses she made after the publication of Truth & Beauty, a memoir about her friendship with the deeply tortured writer Lucy Grealy, form the most telling and moving selections, especially her compelling speech (“The Right to Read”) given to the Clemson University student body in defense of academic and artistic freedom. Early on, her writing teacher Russell Banks had warned Patchett of being too “polished” and “just getting by,” urging her to take risks, and certainly many of these selections reveal a candid, evolved self-reflection. (Nov.)
O: the Oprah Magazine
“In this heartfelt collection of autobiographical essays, the novelist opens up about love, friendship, and family, exhibiting the compassionate voice that is a hallmark of her fiction.”
USA Today
“Reading Patchett is like spending time with a deeply perceptive longtime pal, or a new friend that one instantly connects with.”
New York Times Book Review
“I had been so engaged by Ann Patchett’s multifaceted story, so lured in by her confiding voice, that I forgot I was on the job. […] As the best personal essays often do, Patchett’s is a two-way mirror, reflecting both the author and her readers.”
Shelf Awareness
“Patchett’s mastery of nonfiction [is] every bit the equal of her skill as a novelist.”
Real Simple
“All the essays were a joy to read...No matter your interest, you’ll find words in this book that speak to you.”
The New Yorker
“[A] sparkling collection.”
Miami Herald
“Happy marriage, compelling writing and all worthy endeavor requires hard work. That’s Patchett’s strength. And she does a fine job.”
Dallas Morning News
“Patchett … is one of our best contemporary novelists. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage reminds us that she is an exceptional writer of nonfiction, too. Her prose is a pleasure to read, regardless of genre.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Novelist Ann Patchett’s excellent essay collection ranges from dogs to writing to white-knuckled air travel.”
Aspen Daily News
“While being an artistic crafter of words, Patchett also has a storyteller’s ability to sketch a moment so vividly you can’t fail to see how her own writing life was developed.”
the Oprah Magazine O
“In this heartfelt collection of autobiographical essays, the novelist opens up about love, friendship, and family, exhibiting the compassionate voice that is a hallmark of her fiction.”
“It is a feat that Ann Patchett remains so lovable as a narrator, and so engaging as a storyteller, when writing about her excellent career, personal life, dog, and husband.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Patchett’s is a no-nonsense voice: clear, sane, companionable… [T]he funny, frank and nervy ‘The Getaway Car’ (possibly worth the book’s price) plunges readers, roller-coaster style, into the story of Patchett’s writing life—essentially, this collection’s real subject.”
NPR's Fresh Air
“[I]n this terrific, wide-ranging collection, Patchett demonstrates how a pro does it.”
“All of the essays, which have been collected from her magazine work over two decades, are excellent. Patchett writes enviable prose—fluid, simple, direct, clear, and fearless…”
Huffington Post
“Ann Patchett most definitely has something to say, in her fully realized and beautiful voice.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[A]ll of the periodical pieces collected are finely polished, worthy of their packaging between two hard covers.”
Columbus Dispatch
“Writing of loss and of the complications of love, Patchett lets down her guard … and opens both her sense of humor and her heart.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Wit-filled and elegantly executed”
New York Times
“The best advertisement for Ann Patchett’s new collection of nonfiction is anything else Ms. Patchett has written...Ms. Patchett’s style is not overly confessional, but it is beguiling in ways that make her sound like someone you’d want to know.”
Library Journal
This compilation of 22 essays by novelist Patchett (winner of the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award; Taft; State of Wonder), many of which previously appeared in magazines or newspapers, together comprise an eclectic group covering a wide range of events on the topic of commitment, from training to get into the Los Angeles Police Department academy to Patchett's career as an author. In the title piece, she recounts the 11 premarriage years she spent with now husband Karl and the lessons they taught her about marriage. In sharing her struggles as a writer and creating the life she wanted for herself, Patchett offers words that gently advise without imposing. Her experiences, large and small, create a connection with the reader in prose that is thoughtful, warm, and encouraging. Each of the essays is its own delight and resonates with warmth and humor from her family and friends, making a short investment of time wonderfully rewarding. If read straight through, the book presents a lovely and lyrical look at a life well lived. VERDICT Patchett provides insight and entertainment for all kinds of readers, and this title will be an asset to any library.—Catherine Gilmore, MLS, Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
A well-organized collection of a beloved, award-winning writer's nonfiction essays about her personal and literary lives. Most readers know Patchett (State of Wonder, 2011, etc.) for her richly imaginative fiction. But before she found success as a novelist, she supported herself by writing nonfiction for a diverse variety of magazines, including Seventeen, Mercedes Benz Magazine and Bridal Guide. In this book, Patchett gathers 22 essays published between 1997 and 2012. What she ultimately produces is a text that is part meditation on the writing life and part literary memoir. From an early age, the Los Angeles native knew she wanted to be a writer, but she would be an adult before she realized that, in addition to making art, storytellers "also [had] to make a living." After stints as a cook, waitress and teacher, she discovered that writing nonfiction could pay her bills. It would only be much later that she understood how writing nonfiction had transformed her into "a workhorse," abolished her ego and impacted the future readers of her novels in ways she never expected. Patchett also reflects on her literary successes, as well as on the controversy surrounding Truth & Beauty (2004), which explores the emotionally intense relationship she had with fellow Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Lucy Grealy. The personal essays reflect a wide range of experiences. In one, she reflects on the rocky childhood that led her away from LA and on to Nashville. In another, she reflects on her failed first marriage and second successful one. Patchett also shares stories of how she learned to appreciate opera, qualified for the LA police academy and unexpectedly became part owner of an independent bookstore. Readable and candid, Patchett's collection is a joyful celebration of life, love and the written word. Wise, humane and always insightful.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.32(w) x 5.84(h) x 1.54(d)

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