Towards the end of her new essay collection, Ann Patchett describes being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where a portrait of her now hangs alongside the likes of Henry James, John Dos Passos and Eudora Welty. “The picture I’d chosen to send was joyful,” she writes. “I’m showing all my teeth and am completely out of step with every serious and circumspect photograph surrounding me.”
At first brush, These Precious Days seems a similarly incongruous addition to the sizeable stack of recently published essays by female writers. Though not devoid of joy, titles such as Lavinia Greenlaw’s Some Answers Without Questions or Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us are unabashed polemics; they grapple with the gritty, they rail and they fulminate. Patchett’s, in contrast, is characterised by sun-dappled beneficence.
At 57, her bestsellers have won prizes and plaudits, and the bookshop she co-owns in her native Nashville, Tennessee, has become a thriving cultural hub. Her marriage is harmonious (her first essay collection was titled This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and her expansive friendship network includes celebrities such as the soprano Renée Fleming as well as girlhood besties. She blitzes up green smoothies, does kundalini yoga, and if ever she’s to be found at a bar, it’ll likely be with her pal and former primary school teacher Sister Nena, an octogenarian Catholic nun (Sister Nena drinks merlot, Patchett sips a seltzer with cranberry juice).
This is the world in which Patchett’s intimate, elegant essays are rooted, be they about taking up knitting or giving up shopping for a year, about how Snoopy was her role model growing up (he made her want to be a writer) or why she decided not to have children. More than once, she remarks on her good fortune, though she also happens to believe in knuckling down, whether it’s to a new novel she’s writing or an article for a women’s monthly. As she reasons: “So many possibilities can arise as a result of intelligence, education, curiosity and hard work.”
It’s not, of course, that she doesn’t find herself in tight spots; it’s just that when she does, she’ll unfailingly salvage something positive. Like the time, aged 19, she went backpacking around Europe with a friend, and they accepted a lift to Derry, promptly finding themselves in a war zone. That piece, The Paris Tattoo, becomes a paean to friendship. Even a health scare involving her husband, related in The Moment Nothing Changed, yields the reassuring affirmation that “For as many times as the horrible thing happens, a thousand times in every day the horrible thing passes us by.” And there are always books – books to teach, to befriend, to rescue you when, for instance, you’ve rashly agreed to cook Thanksgiving dinner for six for the very first time.
This mood abruptly changes, however, three-quarters of the way through, with the title essay. As Patchett notes of the writings she has assembled here: “Again and again, I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life.” The title essay snaps that precariousness sharply into focus.
Topping 60 pages, it’s by far the longest, and recounts how Patchett fell into a life-changing friendship with Tom Hanks. Or at least that’s what she assumed it was going to be about, but Hanks turns out to be only a bit-player; it’s his assistant, Sooki Raphael, a thwarted painter reticent of manner and flamboyant of wardrobe, who is its bright star. (One of her paintings, of Patchett’s dog, adorns the book’s jacket.)
Sooki has recurrent pancreatic cancer and, just as the pandemic hits, arrives in Nashville to take part in a clinical trial. Patchett insists she stay with them, and so begins a profound deepening of their fledgling rapport. With the world turned upside down, they’re soon heading off on nocturnal rambles and trying medicinal magic mushrooms together.
It’s radiant storytelling, both questing and vulnerable in its candour. It’s also the reason this book exists. “That essay was so important to me that I wanted to build a solid shelter for it,” Patchett says, and yet it’s the essay that gives the shelter its heft, foregrounding darker currents that have been flowing through its pages all along. Mortality, in particular, looms suddenly larger. And then there’s her frank acknowledgment that to befriend an author is to have your life written about, your psyche’s innermost corners probed and exposed.
Patchett of course hymned another friendship, with the late Lucy Grealy, in her 2004 memoir Truth and Beauty, and elsewhere in this very book the author is to be found plotting a piece about her dying father even as she holds his hand. It was “like holding a linen sack full of bumblebees”, she recalls – a reminder, should one be needed after reading the collection’s few slighter pieces, that she has serious literary chops.
These Precious Days contains some masterclass-grade tips on writing, but it confronts, too, the extent to which literature and life diverge: people aren’t characters; our daily hurryings and scurryings do not a plot make. And while Patchett can’t start work on a novel without having figured out exactly how it will end, living well requires the opposite: “Death always thinks of us eventually. The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have left,” she advises. As a rallying call, it’s timely, timeless and as full-voiced as her smile is broad.