There is something annoyingly perky, can-do American about Ann Patchett, as displayed in her latest collection of non-fiction, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, but one cannot help but also admire her self-awareness, her self deprecatory humour, and the perfect balance of her craft, which she says she honed writing magazine articles, of which, in kind of self-referential fashion, this collection is composed.
Of course it seems effortless, and this is part of the skill of a writer like this, but the articles have a beautiful flow, and she has a feel for the right injection of humour, aside, or pithy metaphor. (She describes writing down the ideas in your head as like squashing, killing and pinning a beautiful butterfly.) Some of her advice to writers is wise, especially when she describes writing as a craft that one has to work at, and be patient with.
The book is not just about her happy marriage, though divorce and remarriage is a theme running through some of the articles, and culminates in the article of the same name, which describes the surprise of her second marriage, and her realisation that her avoidance of remarriage meant that both she and her (now) husband were holding back something of themselves.
In other news, she makes an impassioned defence of the short story, and makes the good point that novelists often try to get their first novel published, but short story writers would never dream of expecting to publish the very first short story they ever attempted. Short stories often have a bad name – “you get into it only to have it end prematurely”, but this art form lends itself to experimentation (at one end of the scale) and distilling and polishing (yes, I realise this is something of a mixed metaphor). Chekhov, John Updike, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor and Borges. And Lydia Davis. I agree that the short story is underrated.