I feel a little spoilt with my reading recently. Alongside reading the brilliant & Sons by David Gilbert, I was devouring this fantastic collection of essays by Ann Patchett, which I enjoyed even more than I enjoyed her latest and best novel, State of Wonder. I knew from reading her memoir, Truth and Beauty, that Patchett is at least as adept a writer of non-fiction as of fiction, and in one of the earlier essays in this volume ('The Getaway Car'), we find out why. Patchett worked as a freelance writer for magazines like Seventeen for years before her career as a novelist took off, where she was subject to fierce, if judicious editing, and she learnt to deliver the goods; to say what is necessary, rather than what sounds nice, and to be one's own most ruthless critic. Patchett also writes on her beginnings as a novelist; the importance of starting with short stories (although she rightly admits in a later essay the ridiculousness of assuming that a good novelist can write good short stories and vice versa, as if a sprinter could run a marathon); the importance of planning; the importance of suspending those carefully-developed critical faculties when you are actually writing. It was the parts of Truth and Beauty that dealt with Ann and Lucy's writing careers that I enjoyed most, and this is of course because I am interested in writing myself. It's difficult to judge what someone who is not interested in Patchett's subject-matter would make of this collection, but then it's a pretty safe bet that her readers will be interested in novels.
Her two essays on her old dog, Rose, may be less crowd-pleasing. I thought I was devoted to the dogs I've lived with throughout my life, but that was before I read Patchett's description of life with her dog. To be honest, I loved it, even though I don't think that all relationships with dogs can or should be like it. Patchett's humorous account of trying to explain their bond to the well-meaning but uninitiated in 'This Dog's Life' was a stand-out for me. 'All I had ever wanted was a dog,' she explains. 'Other girls grew up dreaming of houses and children, true love and financial security; I envisioned shepherds and terriers, fields of happy, bounding mutts.' This proves to be confusing when Patchett starts to take Rose everywhere with her. '"Maybe you don't even realise it," strangers said, friends said, my family said. "Clearly, you want a baby."' As Patchett shrewdly observes, 'Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people's concerned analysis. No-one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says, "Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there's a guy who wants to have a son."'
Perhaps the greatest essays in this volume, though, were those that worked not because I loved dogs and books as much as Patchett does - although this isn't the only reason that they worked - but the ones that convey Patchett's sheer humanity as a writer. Her essay on caring for her ageing grandmother, 'Love Sustained', touched upon uncannily similar themes to Lionel Shriver's Big Brother, which I have just finished reading and will review next week; how much do we owe to our relatives and how far can we be expected to go for them? Unlike Shriver, whose novel is a lament for what she could and perhaps should have done for her brother, Patchett put herself forward for the task and the joy of providing the support her grandmother needed, even though she initially envisaged herself as 'one of those people' who 'had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly.' She plays down her own sacrifice, but it is difficult not to admire it, even as we see what she gained from having the time to spend together. The titular essay, 'This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage', navigates the more fraught terrain of romantic relationships, as Patchett recalls how she and her husband met and decided to marry; while the most brilliant and offbeat offering, 'The Wall', describes how she put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what his life as a police captain had been. These essays reminded me of why I like Patchett's novels so much; and also that the truth is sometimes better than fiction.