“These Precious Days,” the new collection of essays by beloved and best-selling author Ann Patchett, is a cornucopia of treats. Witty and warm, the essays succeed because of Patchett’s inimitable, endearing voice. Sincere but never simplistic, generous without being cloying, and accessible rather than anodyne, “These Precious Days” feels at once bracing and comforting.
In her introduction, Patchett writes of revisiting previously published essays in putting together the book. “Through these essays, I could watch myself grappling with the same themes in my writing and in my life: what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take.” She was, she tells us, “asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life.”
What she needs: experiments, adventures, tests of self-reliance. Several essays discuss milestones in her journey toward adulthood: cooking her first Thanksgiving Dinner (from scratch!) as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, planning joint tattoos with a friend while vacationing in Paris one summer when both were 19. She needs, also, the clarity of her own vision, the strength of her own convictions, her fierce resistance to the cultural injunction that parenthood is the highest form of love. Anyone who has been questioned about his or her childlessness must read “There Are No Children Here,” a blistering rebuttal to the idea that a child-free existence is lesser, selfish, unfulfilled.
Other needs discussed in these essays include books (there are lovely essays on Kate DiCamillo and Eudora Welty, plus numerous paeans to the joy of reading), the deep satisfaction of running her Nashville bookstore, Parnassus Books, the ability to meander and wander in her writing life. Aspiring and experienced writers alike will find many nuggets of wisdom, helpful advice, and fascinating backstage stories here. In “To the Doghouse,” one of the book’s most irresistible essays, Patchett shows us how Snoopy, “the cartoon dog,” inspired her to become a writer; another piece reveals the challenge of designing a successful book cover. She brings us inside her admittedly charmed life and makes it feel, almost, normal. She also uncovers the alignments between her creative work and her real life and the crucial role of surprise in both.
Whom she loves: her second husband, Carl, an older doctor whose love of flying planes worries her (“Flight Plan”) but who unfailingly ballasts Patchett back to the ground. Her three fathers — one biological, two stepfathers — whose very different kinds of paternal care are valued for what they gave her as both writer and daughter. Her mother, a blonde knockout often mistaken for her sister and dismissed as less intelligent or substantive than she actually is. A raft of friends, from Tavia, her childhood chum, to Lucy, her grad school compatriot. One feels the glow of Anne’s capacious and compassionate love irradiating the essential worth of this motley cast of characters.
And then there is Sooki, Tom Hanks’s personal assistant and a late-in-life friend “who was light and life and color itself.” That friendship is the subject of the collection’s titular essay, which went viral when it was published in Harper’s during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked to blurb Hanks’s short story collection, (231) Patchett ends up meeting Hanks and befriending his quirky, gifted, stylish assistant, Sooki. When Sooki is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Patchett opens her house to a woman whose bold and vibrant aesthetic in art and life invigorates, moves, and changes her.
What she can let go: the need for others’ approval, shopping (one essay describes a year when she gave it up completely), knick-knacks, early manuscripts, and awards. Abandoning the superfluous brings a resurgence of energy and a “startling abundance.” Letting go of attachments to sick or dying loved ones proves a tougher proposition. All life is practice, and the art of losing hard to master.
But mastery isn’t what Patchett is after. Again and again, she reminds us of the unknowability of our experience, the way that mistakes or missteps can lead to breakthroughs or epiphanies, the vagaries of our fates. Living — and writing — is a series of stabs in the dark, and living and writing well, an attempt to make of the moment something permanent.
It is her somber awareness of life’s precariousness and her ardent appreciation of its preciousness that makes Patchett an at once sobering and authentically uplifting writer. She looks unflinchingly at the things that thwart or cripple us, she resists easy explanations, she insists on the randomness of much “good fortune.” Bad things happen to very good people, everything does not happen for a reason, and she never takes her contentment for granted. She punctures feel-good bromides with both brisk efficiency and moral passion: “We speak of ourselves as being blessed, but what can that mean except that others are not blessed, and that God has picked out a few of us to love more?” In these essays, marriages fail, people get sick, become infirm and die, and families implode in spectacular fashion. But even as death threatens, Patchett urges us to “find joy in the interim and make good use of the days we have.”
These Precious Days
Harper, 320 pages, $26.99
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’