I’m a huge Ann Patchett fan and when I spotted her memoir in Bloomsbury’s catalogue it seemed the next best thing to a new novel. When it arrived I was a little disappointed as it turns out to be a collection of essays rather than continuous prose but after gobbling them all down I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a better form than straightforward linear autobiography. Together they offer an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work. The introduction explains how Patchett used newspaper and magazine gigs to fund her fiction before earning enough from it to give up her day job, so to speak, although she chose not to do this having come to enjoy the discipline of the essay and the excitement of finding out about new things. As her stature grew she was able to get commissions which tied in nicely with research for her novels – trips to Italy to review opera for Bel Canto which resulted in an abiding passion, a boat trip up the Amazon for State of Wonder.
As anyone who knows her fiction will tell you she writes extraordinarily well. Her essays are clear, often incisive and pull no punches, particularly when describing the sheer hard graft of writing when addressing prospective writers who want a magic formula in The Getaway Car. We learn a great deal about Patchett’s life – the pleasures and otherwise of a large extended family, how she found her dog Rose her most constant companion for sixteen years, the sadness of looking after a beloved grandmother afflicted with dementia, the excitement of helping to set up an independent bookshop and, of course, last but not least the long eponymous essay on how she overcame her reluctance to marry based on a family history chequered with divorce and embarked on a very happy marriage to her husband Karl. Vivid images leap out from some of these essays – the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street of the small Nashville town where she lived as a child, pushing her ancient beloved dog in a buggy because she can no longer walk, determinedly struggling through the most taxing part of the LAPD entry programme. There isn’t a dud essay in this collection and somehow it feels more honest as a reflection of a writer’s life than a straightforward autobiography written with the gloss of memory. If you’re a fan, it isn’t a novel but it’s surely the next best thing, and if you’re an aspiring writer it’s worth the cover price just to read the advice in The Getaway Car.