Ann Patchett: “Whatever the subject matter her voice, equal parts, warm, wry and insightful, reels you in.”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Joanne Kaufman of the book by Ann Patchett titled “These Precious Days”:

Ann Patchett was 26 when, for the first time, she began thinking about her demise. She was working on her first novel—seven have since followed, including “Bel Canto,” “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House”—and she hadn’t made an outline, hadn’t jotted down any notes, hadn’t considered exigencies. What if, during a swim in the chilly Atlantic (a favorite activity), she got cramps (a frequent affliction) and couldn’t make it back to shore (a constant nightmare). What then?

“Were I to die, I’d be taking the entire world of my novel with me—no significant loss to literature, sure, but the thought of losing all the souls inside me was unbearable. Those people were my responsibility,” Ms. Patchett writes in “These Precious Days,” her collection of essays and speeches, a follow-up of sorts to her 2013 collection “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”

The ineluctable passage of time is the bass line thrumming through much of the book, which takes its title from the Kurt Weill standard “September Song.”…Ms. Patchett recalls walking through the portrait gallery at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in upper Manhattan, right before her induction into the society—a signal honor made possible only because another member had shuffled off this mortal coil. She takes a close, careful look at her freshly hung photograph and takes a step back. “The math in this room was inescapable,” she notes ruefully; “two hundred fifty seats at the table and no one gets to stay. . . . Dying was the essential contract, after all.”

Ms. Patchett examines how the death of a friend’s father, a hunter and gatherer par excellence, pushed her to take a long, hard look at the contents of her house. She didn’t think she had much stuff, but that was before she started poking around and…she came upon the dozen pristine, etched-crystal champagne flutes, the four unused Waterford brandy snifters, the six liqueur glasses that had never held liqueur—all things she had coveted and collected during adolescence only to learn they really had no place in her life. “I had miscalculated the tools of adulthood when I was young, or I had miscalculated the kind of adult I would be,” she writes.

The title essay chronicles the tangle of events—Ms. Patchett’s enthusiastic reaction to Tom Hanks’s debut collection of short stories; an invitation to interview the actor on stage in Washington as part of the publicity tour—that sparked an extraordinary friendship between Ms. Patchett and Ms. Hanks’s personal assistant, Sooki Raphael.

An artist who later painted the pictures used as the cover art for “These Precious Days,” Raphael didn’t live to see the finished product. An account of her last days, and of her death from pancreatic cancer this past spring, form the book’s coda. “We all know what the end will be now,” Ms. Patchett writes; “we’ve known it for a while. If an ending could be changed through strategic planning or force of will or the sheer love of life, things would go differently, but this cannot be changed.”

Whatever the subject matter—it ranges from saints to sisters to shopping—Ms. Patchett’s voice, equal parts, warm, wry and insightful, reels you in. There’s a freshness, an openness that never gets near over-sharing—and a humanity that never gets near sanctimony. Her behavior isn’t always exemplary, as she acknowledges….Ms. Patchett cops to it without seeming to suggest that she deserves points for telling on herself.

Fittingly for a novelist, Ms. Patchett has an unerring eye for detail. She writes of the interior of a Paris restaurant that was “constructed entirely from bright chunky pieces of broken tile” while the walls, the floor and the booths that pushed up from the floor were “like concrete eruptions.” And she has the ability to take a small incident—say, a call from a stranger who came into possession of a nightstand that once belonged to Ms. Patchett’s grandmother—and spin it into a meditation, say, on gratitude for the people who care enough about us to hold onto the pieces of our past that we would otherwise, foolishly, toss…. She also pays tribute to her role model, the “Peanuts” comic-strip beagle—and single-minded author—Snoopy, who takes rejection and bad reviews in stride and sees the flaws in his work but keeps at his craft. “I could have skipped those two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because the whole writer’s life had been mapped out for me.”…

If “These Precious Days” can be said to have a hero, it would surely be Ms. Patchett’s husband, Karl VanDevender, an internist who figures in several essays, particularly a stand-out one that is ostensibly about flying—Dr. VanDevender is an avid pilot—but is really about love and faith and mortality. “What I understood,” Ms. Patchett writes after a glitch with an unlatched door during a flight with her husband, “was that there was no keeping anyone safe . . . and, in the end, it probably won’t be the nose tip or the door. It will be something infinitely more mundane. It will be life and time, the things that come for us all. Which doesn’t mean I’ll be able to keep myself from saying, Careful, call me, come right back. I will always be reaching for his hand.”


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