Monthly Archives: July 2014

Book Review: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

This-is-a-Happy-MarriageAnn 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.



The Fault in our Families

I read The Fault in Our Stars this weekend, primarily from about 5.30-7.30 A.M. on Saturday morning while Abby was still sleeping, for once in her life. I did cry a lot thinking about what it would be like to have my child die of cancer, but it mostly irritated me, probably because I could see that I would have been its target audience about fifteen to twenty years ago, when, like the kids in the book, I was convinced I was smarter and savvier than the adults around me.

Aside from the ridiculously tone-deaf dialogue, here’s my major gripe: neither of the main characters have siblings. Not a big deal? Narratively, a very big deal: giving a couple of cancer-ridden teenagers siblings would be to admit that, just maybe, someone else might love them more, know them better, and have more claim on their final days or weeks than the teenager who’s known them for all of a few months.

There’s a moment when–spoiler alert, but you know how this ends, right?–Augustus is dying, and his grown half-sisters show up to fawn over him. Hazel gets all mentally snippy about them calling him “our” Gus as though they’ve taken possession of him, but COME ON HAZEL. Just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they don’t know how to love–and if Augustus had siblings living at home, we might have to accept that their grief would overshadow hers.

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