I’ve had Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage on my shelf for several months after it was kindly sent to me by Harper Perennial. This collection of essays spanning Patchett’s writing career made a home on my nightstand and there it sat for several months.
A half-truth: I picked it up several weeks ago and hungrily devoured the collection in the span of a few days.
The raw truth: I started reading This is the Story of a Happy Marriage a few days after Sam said – via Facebook message – that our marriage was a mistake and would most likely end in divorce; in fact, he wanted out. It was the day after Valentine’s Day, sleeting cold weather, and I was at work.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage was plucked from my nightstand simply because looking at the spine cradled between other books swelled my heart with rage, loss, defiance, and bitterness. In some sort of masochistic effort of stubborn will I decided to read about this “happy marriage.”
At this point I should disclose that when I read a book from a publisher I’m careful to avoid the introduction, blurbs, or any press associated with the book until I complete it; the goal is to review with an objective eye and free of outside opinions and I find that reviews and introductions can sway my perspective. Because I didn’t do any prior research, I thought this was a memoir about a marriage and I expected it to be colored with struggle and heartache, but ultimately love. Instead of a memoir about a marriage, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays and non-fiction pieces written at various times in Patchett’s life. Travel, trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy, friendship and family, discussions on censorship and the power of independent bookstores, and other topics are included. I gave this collection a four out of five stars because it reads a bit uneven. Each piece is well-written, but some are light and leisurely and others are sucker punches of audacious truth. It isn’t a collection of all Patchett’s shorter non-fiction work, which, in that case, it would make sense to include the light and the heavy. Rather it is an assemblage of her best shorter non-fiction and I would have preferred a slimmer volume of the sucker punches of audacious truth. The lighter pieces can seem a bit hollow when sandwiched between the heavy pieces.
Let’s recap, my marriage has spontaneously crumbled and I’m reading a essay collection containing sucker punches of audacious truth. Talk about reading serendipity! While Sam and I spent the next several days – and many days after – in “the muckiest mud pit” I continued to read this collection. I cannot tell you if my marital problems influenced how I read this book or if this book is responsible for giving me the wisdom and fortitude I needed at this time. The two are married (pun intended). I’m going to walk through a few of the essays and resulting sucker punches to better illustrate the power in this collection.
The Essay – “The Getaway Car: a practical memoir about writing and life” is an essay chock-full of encouragement about sitting your butt in a chair and writing. I highlighted several passages about the nuts and bolts of writing, but one quote pulled me head first into this essay, “Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.” Later on the passage discusses the “grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies.”
The Sucker Punch – I need to forgive myself. I came into this marriage with my own quirks, flaws, and plenty of baggage. When Sam said he thought we weren’t meant to be I immediately started assembling my own list of inadequacies that I whispered to myself like a sick mantra: the weight gain, the mental illness, the social awkwardness, the vacillating between clinging and the cold shoulder. Obviously not the best self-talk for the situation. I’m messy because I’m human; we’re all walking contradictions all I can do is strive to be my best and forgive myself when I’m not.
The Essay – “The Sacrament of Divorce” concerns Patchett’s divorce from her first husband after a little over a year of marriage. This gem best sums up the essay, “…I came to see that there was something liberating about failure and humiliation. Life as I had known it had been destroyed so completely, so publicly, that in a way I was free… I didn’t have any expectations anymore, and no one seemed to expect anything from me.”
The Sucker Punch – I’m going to be okay. Marriage makes a couple responsible to one another and with any unshackling of responsibility – no matter how painful – there is liberty at the end. Sam is a part of my life and being married to him is part of my identity, but it is not all of me. I have my kids, books, my cat friends, coffee,too much yarn and plans to travel, write, and thrive. I can do this even if it isn’t what I want.
The Essay – “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” begins with Patchett discussing her grandmother’s divorce, her mother’s two complicated divorces, and her own divorce from her first husband. Then Patchett discusses her on-again, off-again romance with Karl (now her husband) and how she really didn’t want to get married because she didn’t want to be stuck again. Being unmarried and in a long term relationship with each partner in a separate home gave her the distance and autonomy she craved. The two do eventually marry and Patchett says, “the love between humans is the thing that nails us to this earth.” Loving and marrying Karl is what ties her to the earth. It gives life shape and meaning.
The Sucker Punch – Dammit I love Sam and I really don’t want to get divorced.
The Essay – “Dog without End” is an essay to be read with tissues on hand. In this essay Patchett discusses the pain and grief of losing her dog, Rose. While I freely admit I wept over Rose’s death, it is what Patchett says about human relationships that I dwell on today, “…over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love they feel for one another is, and it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgement and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.”
The Sucker Punch – As one of the final essays in this collection I was reading it as Sam and I were at the pinnacle of our, to echo Cheryl Strayed again, “wrestling together neck-deep in the muckiest mud pit.” Almost as soon as Sam asked for a divorce he recanted, but I was on the defensive. We slung mud, dredged up every flaw and transgression, we were both so reckless with our words. He broke my heart and I tried to one up him to break his. It was ugly, it was difficult, we were breaking apart. At the end of this mud pit we will find our own identity and define our relationship and that can have a myriad of outcomes.
Are things better and our marriage 100% perfect? Absolutely not. I’d say we’re out of the mud pit, but still quite muddy. There is still pain and doubt on both sides. Will we be together forever and ever? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve broken every wall and smashed our collective heart to slivers and now we start the process of sorting through the wreckage to find what’s salvageable and try to build a stronger marriage. There is no quick, easy resolution to heartbreak.