Ann Patchett has a way of encouraging others to widen their view of the world, even when there is so much going on in her readers’ lives that it feels like there is no room for anything else. I know that has been true for me. She has done so time and again in novels like Bel Canto, Commonwealth, and The Dutch House. Ann Patchett is one of the most celebrated writers of our time and her latest essay collection, These Precious Days, does not disappoint. In many ways, this book is a continuation of the conversation she begins in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage as she writes about her own life story and the experiences that have continued to shape her as a friend, wife, and writer. According to Patchett, this collection would not exist without a sleepless night spent with the book Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. Not long after reading the book, Patchett meets Hanks and his assistant Sookie. Patchett’s resulting friendship with Sookie would change her outlook on life and the time she chooses to invest in others.
Patchett’s voice is poetic and thoughtful, and her optimism leaps off the page even as she helps Sookie fight cancer during the COVID-19 lockdown in the titular essay of this collection. She says of her experiences, “There is nothing more interesting than time: the days that are endless, the days that get away.” The days she spent with Sookie at the home she shares with her husband, Karl VanDevender, and their dog, Sparky, in Nashville, Tennessee are both days that are endless and days that got away. They were endless in moments like Patchett being sure yoga and meditation would snap her back in half, but fleeting too, like when Patchett and Sookie had finally found a completely comfortable way of being together by occupying the same space without thoughts of cancer or the pandemic. It wasn’t long after they found this medium of coexistence that Sookie returned home. During a time when people were forced to slow down, Sookie was inspiring those around her to live life in color. Her absence from the Patchett household impacted Ann’s views of life and friendship.
This collection of essays spans from marriage and knitting to things more unavoidable, such as family, death, and lockdown, all with the strength of narration Patchett is known for. Other stories included in the collection are less compelling than Sookie’s, but no less well written. Of her first marriage, Patchett says this: “We thought we were making plans when in fact we were only guessing, and it was crazy reckless guessing like that, like throwing tarot cards at a dartboard while blindfolded. At every turn we believed we were onto something big, the absolute truth of our lives. We were wrong about nearly all of it.”
This idea of making plans only to have them fail is a recurring theme in the collection, but it is through this constant failure — and reevaluation as a result of failure — that has allowed Patchett to succeed in her life. For example, the picture Patchett took with her three fathers at her sister’s wedding becomes the catalyst for the story “My Three Fathers.” Each father failed and succeeded to raise Patchett and influence her life in their unique ways and she didn’t realize it until years later, after they all passed, and found herself looking at the photograph again. It is partly because of the influence of these men, and their failures, that Patchett learns to pursue her goals for herself at an early age. With a strong sense of self-reliance, she pursues a college education in order to get better at what she loves: writing. Patchett later explains in the collection how one does not have to go to college to be a writer but does go on to say: “When you’re a writer, it’s worth two years of your life to feel like you’ve found your people.” After my own MFA experience, I wholeheartedly agree.
As a rule, I generally steer clear of reading essays, but when These Precious Days first landed in my inbox as a potential assignment, I felt so privileged to be able to review one of Ann Patchett’s books. I eagerly accepted. I first discovered her when I was in high school, probably around the same age Patchett was when The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty came to her. According to Patchett, she “…fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in all its wonder and magnitude.” Ann Patchett is my Eudora Welty, just as Virginia Woolf was Eudora Welty’s reason for falling in love with fiction. The ability to try on another character, if only for a little while, is transcendent. The experience of reading Patchett and trying on her characters is the rarest of opportunities. Even after so many successful stories, she still finds unexpected ways to connect to our humanity. Ann Patchett has put together a great work that is as honest as it is engrossing.
These Precious Days
By Ann Patchett
Published November 23, 2021