Sunday Book Review: This is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

UnknownI expected to love this book. I’m an Ann Patchett fan – I like the passion with which she defends books and bookstores, and how blunt she is about the writing process. She’s decidedly unromantic and controlled, which makes her writing interesting and unique. Her memoir Truth & Beauty is on my top-five all time list. It’s just captivating. So even though I don’t generally like the disjointed nature of collections like this, of articles published before at different times in various magazines, I was excited to spend more time with her non-fiction thoughts.

This is a fine collection, with interesting stories about everything from how her father’s career in law enforcement inspired her to take the Police Academy test for the LAPD, to the reason she dated her husband on and off for eleven years before agreeing to marry him. She’s honest and shares lots of interesting behind the scenes stories.

And yet I didn’t love it. I’ve spent a few days now trying to figure out why. It’s a solid collection, a good read. I recommend it. But it’s almost as if age and a certain degree of scrutiny have made her too controlled, and the result is three hundred pages almost devoid of emotions.  The pages about the end of her first marriage, her divorce, and then how she (finally) married her second husband were well written. The plot moved effortlessly forward, even as veered through some rocky scenes. But when I closed the book, I realized I had absolutely no sense of how she felt about any of those scenes or people, aside from a vague sense of shame for the divorce and a certain relational reserve thereafter.  Even as she describes agreeing to marry her second husband after he had a health scare, it all feels clinical and distant. I can’t really imagine him as a person, or the two of them kissing, picking out a new sofa, or even having a conversation about the dog.  It all feels blank. If this is the story of a happy marriage, as the title suggests, happy seems defined as not failing.  I guess I at least hoped she’d be having a little fun.

It’s strange for me to call an author out on this, as my emotional range hovers just slightly above your average house plant.  All I’m really looking for is the basic triangle of sad/mad/happy.  There were hints of mad when she described the response of one conservative Southern college to her memoir,  and allusions to happy when she writes of opening her bookstore in Nashville. She tells us about emotions, but doesn’t show them. It’s as if her life is interesting, laid out on clean newsprint in neat columns, without much to mess it up. I’m intrigued if her life is that straightforward and uncomplicated, and perhaps that’s a selling point of the book. How often do we get so see that? Still, I’d hoped for some of the deep connection she created in Truth & Beauty, where both the people eand the emotions were live and vivid.

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher. There was no requirement that I post a review.