Ann Patchett greets you at the door to her books, and you can feel the warmth coming toward you. You sense that she has a good heart, that she will offer you a seat on her best sofa. Like an old friend, she will keep the talk gentle, uncomplicated, convivial.
Then, without quite knowing how it happens, you find yourself in her spell. From within the well of ordinary human sadness, she draws up the stuff of hope and transformation. Patchett is a master of redemptive tales, and the tricks aren’t cheap. Spend an afternoon with her, and you realize that she means it.
In “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” Patchett reveals this journey as her own. The 22 pieces gathered here (written from 1996 to 2012) are loosely constructed as an arc from the moment she realized that she would become a writer through the failures and losses — and successes — that have brought her to the fullness of maturity, a best-selling author and solid citizen (and bookstore owner) of Nashville.
Though the subject of the writing life weaves in and out of these essays, they are primarily about relationships, the force that anchors and sustains her vision of the heart’s capacity to grow. Patchett is first and forever a daughter, a granddaughter, a wife. She is also a former Catholic schoolgirl, a passionate dog owner, a neighbor. Stability — geographic and relational — is her taproot.
Stability is a value dearly won, we learn in the first, and one of the best, pieces in the collection. “How to Read a Christmas Story” tells the story of wounded childhood, of broken families, and guilty, self-indulgent adults. Her father, desolate and distant in California after the divorce, keeps sending the wrong gifts. Step-siblings arrive to sulk and grieve. But when Ann is 12, her father, instead of mailing a pair of skates or a doll, calls and reads her a story over the phone. It is the tale of an orphan who has been given a gift that could change everything about her lonely life — until she is challenged to give the gift away to a child less fortunate.
“There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did,” she writes. Suddenly she sees: “Writers need not be confined by their own dull lives and petty Christmas sadness. They could cut new stories out of whole cloth, stories that did not reflect their own experiences but spoke instead to the depth of their emotions. In short, this was something I could do.”
She struggles through graduate school, flees her first marriage, wins a fellowship, and launches her career. She attempts to join the L.A. Police, takes a road trip to Yellowstone to try out a Winnebago, and dines in Paris. But always, she comes home, and home — the small daily transactions of the personal — is where the fire in these pieces burns brightest.
Patchett’s engagement with “the personal” has not been without controversy. In 2004 she published “Truth and Beauty: A Friendship,’’ a memoir of her relationship with the writer Lucy Grealy, who died of a heroin overdose at 39 after battling the effects of disfiguring jaw cancer for years. Its unflinching candor earned it fierce fans, but also impassioned resistance, most particularly at Clemson University after it was assigned to freshmen.
But a darker chapter involved the hurt and sense of betrayal expressed by Lucy’s family. Patchett has defended her chronicle as a personal obligation to Lucy’s memory, and the new collection includes two pieces about that book and its reception. In the main, however, her subject here is not high drama, but rather quieter understanding.
She discovers the meaning of love as she cuts her grandmother’s toenails in a nursing home; reconnects with the nun who taught her third grade and now needs help buying groceries and Christmas gifts (Lifesavers, tissue packs) for inner-city schoolteachers. She marries the man down the street who has loved and waited for her for 11 years.
Patchett’s six novels (including “Bel Canto,’’ and “Run’’) have been bestsellers. Her characters struggle toward lives of decency and integrity after pain, cruelty, and messes of their own making. Small acts of courage and forgiveness turn the tides of self-loathing and despair. Redemption arrives — with a healthy dose of realism — in connections that accrue, loyalties that deepen.
And so it appears to be in her own life. As she traces the stories that undergird the vision she champions in her fiction, Patchett’s blend of self-effacing humor and honesty win our new respect. Set against the addiction, torture, doomed affairs, and broken children that flood so much contemporary work, she takes us to a place where to “stay put” leads to transformative experiences.
Her recent activism on behalf of the threatened world of bookstores is of a piece with this conviction. In 2011, with a partner, she opened Parnassus, an independent bookstore in Nashville, complete with daschund and a schedule of author events.
When she digs deep into her well of delicate and deliberative insights, Patchett shines. Occasionally she veers into celebrity-writer tropes (the wearying 25-city book tour, asides about dogs and babies and spouses that can feel expedient). But rarely. That she can get away with these few lapses is testimony to her humility and basic decency.
Here, as in her fiction, Patchett reads the fine print of life and in so doing helps us to remember who we can be.Kathleen Hirsch is the author of “A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness.’’