"THESE PRECIOUS DAYS" by Ann Patchett (Harper, 336 pages, $27).
Nashville writer Ann Patchett's second volume of essays, "These Precious Days," is a grab bag of personable pieces drawn from Patchett's life, infused with a perspective that somehow manages to be both down-to-earth and utterly singular. The unique sensibility Patchett brings to her essays is suggested by an exchange in the title piece here: A friend, upon being told Patchett has been invited to interview Tom Hanks on stage in Washington, D.C., asks, "Do you even realize your life isn't normal?"
Normal or not, Patchett is a sharp-eyed observer of the world and a superb writer who is always good company on the page. Those who pick up the book to learn about her approach to her craft or her love of books will not be disappointed. Those who read to enjoy stories of deep friendship, complicated family ties and personal heroes will be touched and inspired. But everyone who opens "These Precious Days" will also be confronted by serious, universal themes, made even more resonant in this time of COVID-19: the abundant gifts of life and the tragedy of its inevitable end. For Patchett, the only rational response to both is grief in its time, certainly, followed close behind by gratitude and joy.
The essays are sprinkled with surprising glimpses into her artistic process. Patchett does not begin to write until she knows how her story will end. She doesn't work from outlines or notes, but plots out an entire novel in her head. "Remembering things is how I work," she says in the book's introduction. Once the writing begins, she doesn't print successive drafts. When the Library of Congress requests her papers, she looks back over her body of work and admits, "I worked on one chapter, one page, one paragraph, a single sentence, over and over again until it was right, then I moved ahead. I made no record of any of that. I had nothing to collect."
In "Three Fathers," Patchett writes lovingly about her birth father and two stepfathers ("My problems were never ones of scarcity," she quips) and calls their appearance en masse at her sister's wedding "the family equivalent of a total solar eclipse." As Patchett manages to document the occasion with a photograph, her first stepfather informs the other two, "You know what she's doing, don't you? She's going to wait until the three of us are dead and then she's going to write about us. This is the picture that will run with the piece." And it did - in The New Yorker in 2020 and in this collection. Patchett goes on to say, "From each of the fathers I took the things I needed, and then I turned them into stories."
In other essays she considers stories of her childhood ("I was an uncomfortable child, a small adult biding my time"); friendships old and new; her deep love for her husband, Karl; and her heroes in literature and in life, including a lovely reminiscence of John Updike.
The poignant "There Are No Children Here" focuses on her decision early in life to remain childless and the many ways she finds herself challenged for it over the years. "How I came not to care about other people's opinions is something of a mystery even to me," she states. "I was born with a compass. This compass has been incalculably beneficial for writing - for everything really - and for that reason I take very good care of it." One gets the impression that Ann Patchett is not a person easily blown off course.
But Patchett is at her most eloquent when considering mortality, her own and others' - most movingly the death from pancreatic cancer of her friend Sooki, who is immortalized in the title essay. In "Flight Plan," when Patchett and her husband narrowly avoid a serious accident in the small plane he is piloting, she writes, "What I understood was that there was no keeping anyone safe - one person remembers to tip the nose up for the landing while the other person forgets to latch the door - 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."
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.