Ann Patchett Has Thoughts on a Bunch of Subjects

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By Alex Witchel

By Ann Patchett

When I published my first book in 1996, about my mom, my sister and me, there was a party. My father, who harbored literary aspirations of his own, made the rounds, accepting congratulations, until he could bear it no longer. “She stole my writing style!” he declared to a friend.

In “These Precious Days,” Ann Patchett’s excellent collection of essays, she recalls her own father, an L.A. cop who scorned her writing ambitions and encouraged her to be a dental hygienist. Because, just like him, she would surely end up divorced with children to support. “Having someone who believed in my failure more than my success kept me alert,” Patchett writes. “It made me fierce. Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval.”

Her story had a twist, though. Patchett’s mother, a nurse, fell in love with a surgeon who moved to Nashville. She followed him there, her two young daughters in tow, and married him. Stepfather Mike “ broke plates and put his fist through hollow doors and thought I was the second coming of Christ,” she writes. “He spent five mornings a week in analysis for more years than should be legal. All he wanted was to be a writer.”

When her mother married for the third time, Patchett was 27: “She didn’t see either of her first two husbands anymore, but both men were central in my life: my father wanting me to be more like him, my stepfather wanting to be more like me.”

Any aspiring writer would. Now 58, Patchett graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, earned her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has written eight novels (her most recent, “The Dutch House,” was a Pulitzer finalist), four works of nonfiction and two children’s books. In 2011, she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, turning it into a writers’ haven and cultural oasis. In 2017, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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    Although she did indeed divorce her first husband, she never had children to support. She married her second husband, Karl, after 11 years of dating; he is 16 years her senior and a medical doctor who earned a master’s in philosophy and theology at Oxford.

    In the essay “There Are No Children Here,” Patchett recounts being interviewed on a national radio show. “‘Your husband is considerably older than you are,’ the host says. ‘Chances are you’ll be alone at the end of your life. Don’t you worry about that?’ … ‘I don’t mind talking about this,’ I said. ‘But I wonder, would you ask Jonathan Franzen the same questions? He doesn’t have children.’ When the interview aired, all the questions about my childlessness had been edited out.”

    To Patchett’s credit, she goes on to address the question, both for herself and the reader: “To have a child required the willful forgetting of what childhood was actually like; it required you to turn away from the very real chance that you do to the person you loved most in the world the exact same thing that was done to you. No. No, thank you.”

    That said, Patchett has plenty of love to spread around, including for her father. After he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she and her sister commute to L.A. for the duration of his illness. The relief she feels when he dies is hard-earned, even as friends look askance at her lack of grieving. She puts it this way: “What if you’ve thrown a dinner party. And at 11:00 your guests finally get up to leave. The dishes are still on the table, the pans are in the sink, you have to go to work in the morning, but the guests just keep standing in the open door saying good night. They tell you another story, praise your cooking, go back to look for their gloves. They do this for three years.”

    Other essays are cast in a more lighthearted vein. Patchett has a talent for friendship and celebrates many of those friends here. She writes with pure love for her mother, and with humor and some good-natured exasperation at Karl, who is such a great character he warrants a book of his own. Patchett’s account of his feigned offer to buy a woman’s newly adopted baby when she expresses unwarranted doubts is priceless.

    She also addresses how owning a bookstore has enriched her life: “I once believed that nothing could surpass winning a big literary award, but I was mistaken. The thing that’s been so much better has been to create jobs in my community. … Even the introverted readers, the silent writers, want a place where they feel welcomed and understood. … That’s how I discovered that my truest destiny was a thing I never saw coming.”

    In the title essay, “These Precious Days,” Patchett charts her acquaintance with Tom Hanks and what becomes an intimate friendship with his assistant, Sooki. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Sooki moves to Nashville, where, with Karl’s help, she receives treatment just as the coronavirus pandemic hits. What begins as a routine story of illness becomes an exploration of families and a central character who refuses to be characterized.

    The days that Patchett refers to are precious indeed, but her writing is anything but. She describes deftly, with a line or a look, and I considered the absence of paragraphs freighted with adjectives to be a mercy. I don’t care about the hue of the sky or the shade of the couch. That’s not writing; it’s decorating. Or hiding. Patchett’s heart, smarts and 40 years of craft create an economy that delivers her perfectly understated stories emotionally whole. Her writing style is most gloriously her own.

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