This is my last review of 2021 and rather like Wednesday’s A Ghost in the Throat, it’s an unusual one for me in that it’s non-fiction and, not only that, it’s a collection of essays, not something I often read. I’m going to try to pick just a few cherries from Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days but it’s a tough choice given how tempting so many of these pieces are.
Book covers should entice readers the way roses entice bees – like their survival depends on it.
It begins with Three Fathers, a tender exploration of what each of her three very different fathers mean to her prefaced by a rather lovely photograph of Patchett with all three at one of the family’s many weddings. The Paris Tattoo explores memories of her 1983 Eurorail tour with a friend, both of them struck with admiration for a svelte waitress with a delicate tattoo. In How to Practice she recalls helping her dear friend, Tavia, clear the home of her father, an avid collector of just about anything, prompting Patchett’s own clearout which proves harder than she expected until she makes a discovery. How Knitting Saved My Life, Twice is a lovely hymn of praise to familial love and friendship as Patchett remembers being taught to knit by her grandmother and the friend who threw her skeins of wool as a lifeline out of the pit of grief into which she’d been plunged. There Are No Children Here is made up of 22 reflections on Patchett’s choice not to have children, some funny, all matter of fact, many of which struck a chord given my own happily childlessness. What the American Academy of Arts and Letters Taught Me About Death recalls her own induction, in the full awareness of filling the gap left by another writer’s death. Cover Stories is all about book covers discussing Patchett’s early bad experiences and the satisfaction of being in a position to ignore her publishers and commission her own resulting in the striking jacket for The Dutch House.
I was starting to understand what she needed might have been colour rather than conversation, breath rather than words
At over 60 pages, the titular essay is by far the longest and deserves a paragraph of its own. It begins with Patchett asked to interview Tom Hanks, struck by his publicist Sooki and her gorgeous black velvet coat emblazoned with peonies. Hanks later narrates The Dutch House and visits Parnassus, the bookstore Patchett co-owns but rather than an account of a friendship with a film star this is about the relationship between Sooki and Patchett, at first conducted by email then suddenly intensified when Sooki is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and Patchett asks her surgeon husband for help. Karl finds a clinical trial at his hospital which Sooki can join and, with characteristic generosity, Patchett insists she moves in. Then covid hits, thrusting these three comparative strangers into an unexpected intimacy which ripens into the closest of bonds.
How other people live is pretty much all I think about. Curiosity is the rock upon which fiction is built.
Patchett’s essays explore family, writing, marriage, love, friendship – Tavia pops up several times, clearly a mainstay of Patchett’s life – and death with which her collection begins and ends, all written in an intimate warm style, full of insight, humour and compassion. These are lovely pieces, like sitting down with a friend blessed with the skill of drawing you in with a warm welcome, just as Patchett does with her fiction. She has a knack of writing about an apparently inconsequential pleasant memory, making a point at the end as if tying a package up with a satisfying bow. Patchett fans who loved This is the Story of a Happy Marriage will need no encouragement to read These Precious Days but any readers disappointed that this isn’t a novel should give it a try. I loved it.
Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526640963 336 pages Hardback