Tag Archives: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Which is very much more than that

Cover ImageI’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.