Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, The Story of a Happy Marriage, at first seems to lack a certain coherence that you would want in a collection of essays, which she acknowledges in the introduction with the reasonable explanation that, for years, she supported her novel-writing by simply writing whatever other people wanted her to write in whatever style they wanted.
Upon closer investigation, however, it turns out that Patchett’s essays do have a consistent underlying theme: the experience of being herself, whether or not that experience is particularly interesting or thoughtful. Take, for example, her essay about learning to love opera. In it, we learn almost nothing about why she likes opera, but we do learn about her desire to “collect” it:
What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn’t seen?
The second season of Met simulcasts was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak.
A real opera fan, the kind who is born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on Carmen. … Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. In the past, when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera, I would choose, say Madama Butterfly over Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. (I still haven’t seen Rigoletto, for heaven’s sake!)
But who can blame her? The essay was written for Vogue, exactly the sort of publication that would be interested in someone’s account of trying on–wearing, so to speak–a cultural experience unavailable to the general public.
At times Patchett does approach self-awareness. In another essay about–of course–learning to be a writer, she remembers one of her teachers telling her to be smarter:
He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by.
Patchett is certainly a clever and well-educated writer, but her writing overwhelmingly gives the impression of a facile and superficial intelligence–not that she couldn’t be smarter but that, as this quotation suggests, no one has ever quite pushed her enough. Take State of Wonder, the only one of Patchett’s novels that I’ve read, under slight duress for a book group. (I started Bel Canto years ago but couldn’t get through more than a few pages. At the time I figured it was my fault.)
Coming in with low expectations, I liked State of Wonder more than I thought it would but found that it relied on a whole slew of uninterrogated shorthand (jungle/ race/ fertility/ etc) and was annoyingly focused around a glib and obvious set piece at–what else?–an opera house in the middle of a jungle that simultaneously called up Fitzcarraldo, The Heart of Darkness, and Orpheus and Eurydice without adding much to the conversation: exactly the kind of clever, shallow intertextuality that offers the appearance of meaning without the substance.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Ann Patchett. She’s a talented, skillful writer who provides something with great resonance to many people, which is precisely what I found most interesting about her essays: how resolutely, emphatically middlebrow they are, how they seem calculated to please the NPR-listening, just-educated-enough audience to whom she sells books. To appropriate a phrase, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, like Patchett’s other books and, I suppose, like Patchett herself is basic–well put together, inoffensive, fond of borrowed thought, and best read with a pumpkin spice latte, while wearing a scarf, in front of a fireplace.