This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
And other tales.
With the exception of one night, fueled by overpriced cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental when I cracked a bunch of jokes that I thought could be compiled into an Amy Schumer-esque memoir, I don't really harbor many ambitions of becoming an author. Nonetheless, I highly enjoy reading memoirs by famous writers, especially when they're on the topic of writing itself.
Although writing is part of my job, the day-to-day stuff I do is easy—and it's because I've always felt more comfortable telling someone else's stories than my own. Years of school training have focused on reading or researching something and then making an argument based on the facts you've uncovered. There's a formula for that and it's easy to crack once you've done it enough times. Towards the end of college, I started getting smug that I could procrastinate to the point of starting my papers the morning they were due, instead of the night before—confident that I no longer even needed the insurance of overnight hours in case, say, I got stuck.
But when it comes to personal essays, stuck is where I am before I even begin. Stories about yourself are not very interesting to anyone unless it speaks to a universal theme. Sometimes, three cocktails in, I'll have a lightbulb moment where a mundane incident suddenly takes on a much deeper life meaning, but like most booze-induced ideas, they have a way of seeming not so smart the next day. And even if I did get over the challenge of having a good point to make, whatever idea that seemed so meaningful in my head suddenly sounds flat and juvenile in text. This is why I especially enjoy reading really great personal essays—because I can appreciate how damn hard it is to write one.
Ann Patchett, of course, does not have these problems. She writes so fluidly and clearly and vividly that she makes you feel things without telling you to feel them. There is not even the slightest veering into Tumblr angst territory, even if she's recalling her grandmother's long, drawn-out battle with dementia ("Love Sustained"), the last day of her dog's life ("Dog Without End") or the first time she truly comprehended her father's loneliness ("How to Read a Christmas Story"). The stories I enjoyed most, however, were the ones that were about her life as a writer ("The Getaway Car," "The Wall" and "My Life in Sales"). She offers a mix of practical advice, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at publishing, and addresses head-on some of the struggles and difficulties of the writing process itself. The title story was another great one. It had me cheering for the relationship without ever getting into the "I love you" dialogue that never fails to makes me cringe. Instead, I found romance in passages like this:
Karl and I stood together at the window, his arm around my shoulder, looking out across the field of white. "I guess when we get home we should get married," I said.
Karl nodded. "I think so."
"I'll put my house on the market."
"Good," he said.
And that was it. After eleven years of discussion there was nothing more to say. "Every relationship you will ever have is going to end." my mother had told me. If Karl needed my help, if there were decision to be made in a hospital, I could do nothing as his girlfriend. He needed a wife.
There were a couple misses in the book: A 2005 convocation speech and her intro to The Best American Short Stories 2006 felt like they were included because—why not? They were already written. But the good stories more than make up for them. It's a book that I will recommend and loan to my friends. My only regret is that I own a flimsy paperback instead of the hardcover.