There’s something truly frustrating about an essay collection whose contents have nearly all been previously published. It isn’t an uncommon practice these days—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and Joyce Carol Oates have all done it—but its prevalence doesn’t dispel its obnoxiousness. As much as I want to financially support the work of authors I admire, these collections feel like petty larceny—theft from both my wallet and my brain. Of course, a well-curated collection of sublime and enlightening essays (think James Wolcott or John Jeremiah Sullivan) can prove revelatory. And a complete collection can uncover mislaid gems and reorient misguided readers. But for the most part, these assembled essay bundles are just old work wrapped up with a pretty new bow.
Such collections, then, bear an unusually heavy burden to prove themselves worthwhile. Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is one of those assemblages which does not, unfortunately, make a sum of its parts. With 22 essays on topics ranging from early childhood holidays gone awry to Patchett’s friendships with fellow writers to the creation of her independent bookstore in Nashville, the works follow the arc of the author’s life and ultimately form a piecemeal autobiography of sorts. Indeed, Patchett’s willingness to lay bare her most affecting experiences is laudable, but ultimately not nearly as rewarding as one of her fictional worlds. Obviously, fiction-writing and essay-writing call for different skills and thought processes. But a writer as talented as Patchett, whose Truth and Beauty better mined and plumbed the tangled intricacies of friendship than perhaps any other modern volume, sells herself short with these bits and bobs.
The problem, it seems, is that Patchett’s writing thrives when it revolves around small, closed universes composed of haphazardly organized individuals. In her most noted work, Bel Canto, a group of workers, guests, and international figures are held hostage at a lavish dinner party. The Patron Saint of Liars handles the lives of the young women sent to a home for unwed mothers and the nuns who look after them. With State of Wonder Patchett went so far as to isolate her characters deep in the jungle of South America. Those tight, private universes refine and restrain Patchett—like a poet who works only in sonnets, she creates abundance from restraint. But the real world seems too boundless for Patchett’s essays. Without the limitations of her fictive universes, she does not force herself deeper, and only skims the surface of her own life.
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