An Autobiography in 24 essays

Suresh Menon | Updated on: Feb 11, 2022

Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days is a wonderful book on friendship, on growing up, on the influence of the Peanuts comic strip, on her father and two step-fathers, and on writing itself

Ann Patchett writes with such charm and clarity that you are halfway through an essay before you realise you are not particularly interested in the subject. With this realisation comes a strengthening of the reader’s primary objective – to see how it all ends. What makes Patchett such a gentle and powerful storyteller in novels like  Bel CantoCommonwealth and  The Dutch House is the same instinct that gives us joy in her essays.

“The tricky thing about being a writer,” wrote Patchett in her first collection,  This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, “is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My novels have always filled my life with meaning, but at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.” Hence her accepting magazine assignments to write about everything from fashion to establishing her bookstore in Nashville. It meant her dog didn’t have to worry about the bills. 

In  These Precious Days, the motivation is entirely different. The title essay – about a friendship with Sooki Raphael, an assistant of Tom Hanks – is a story that needed to be told. The other essays, settled themselves around this central one giving us a wonderful book on friendship, on growing up, on the influence of the  Peanuts comic strip, on her father and two step-fathers, and on writing itself, as the essays are peppered with sage advice for writers.  These Precious Days can be read as an autobiography in 24 essays.

Patchett’s father wanted her to be a dental hygienist. “Some day you’ll get divorced,” he told her as her ambition was forming in high school, “You’ll have a couple of kids to support. You’re not going to be able to do that writing.” Contrary to popular belief, Patchett writes, “love does not need understanding to thrive.” The difference in outlook was also a lesson: “My father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval.”

In the same essay we get what must count as the first rule of writing: “To be a writer you have to like your own company.” Others follow. Here’s a bunch from the essay on Snoopy. “(Snoopy) taught me what it would mean to stand in front of the mailbox waiting to hear from the editor; he taught me I would fail.” Snoopy also taught her the importance of critical reading, that writers didn’t need a fancy studio to write in, that she would be hurt but get over it, and so on. 

When a radio interviewer asks her about her decision not to have children saying “chances are you will be alone at the end of your life,” Patchett responds with: “Would you ask Jonathan Franzen the same question?” 

Patchett meets Sooki while interviewing Hanks on his book of short stories. The assistant is a “tiny woman wearing a fitted evening coat with saucer-shaped peonies embroidered onto black velvet.” And so begins an acquaintance which develops through casual email messages before the revelation that Sooki has pancreatic cancer and is about to undergo clinical trials.

Patchett and her husband Karl, know that a hospital in their hometown is working on the kind of trial Sooki needs and invites her to stay with them. Then the pandemic strikes and the three of them are thrown together for a number of months while the trial (and the chemotherapy) go on. 

Patchett writes of deeply emotional experiences without sentimentality, contemplates life and its meaning without sinking into bathos. “Sooki and I needed the same thing: to see someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves,” she writes, and you realise that the writer is as grateful for the experience as the painter is (Sooki’s painting of Patchett’s dog is on the cover of this book). 

Gratitude is an underlying motif throughout. The title essay contains in a nutshell the themes that are explored across the book, whether it is about travelling or childhood friends or meeting the writer Eudora Welty.

At 22, Patchett was told by a professor that she had natural talent, which ruined things for everyone else. “I can only hope you die young and alone in a closet,” he said. When to accept advice and when to ignore it is a gift she acquired early.

The power of Patchett’s writing lies in its quick conversion of the routine into the exceptional, her gift for taking the personal and making it universal in language that is at once deeply personal and accessible. Meanwhile, the unexpected is usually waiting just around the corner. When Ann Patchett is the writer, there can be no subject you are not interested in. 

(Suresh Menon is a journalist, author and sports writer. His most recent book was Why Don’t you Write Something I Might Read)

Check out the book on Amazon here

About the Book

These Precious Days

Ann Patchett

Bloomsbury

Rs 580; 336 pages (paperback)

Published on February 11, 2022
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