Reviewed by Harriet
I’m a great admirer of Ann Patchett’s novels. I read Bel Canto when it first came out and have loved her writing ever since – here’s my review of her most recent novel, The Dutch House. So naturally I requested a copy of These Precious Days as soon as I saw it announced. This is not a novel, of course – it’s an essay collection, and in general I’m not a great reader of essays. No matter – I plunged in and found that essays in the hands of a writer such as Patchett can be just as absorbing as a novel, especially when, as here, they tell the story of the writer herself. These are her thoughts on ‘what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take’.
Patchett has always written essays, and published her first collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, in 2013. But when the pandemic hit, bringing with it a looming threat of death, she realised it was the perfect form for the times: unlike novelists, who fear dying because the whole story lodged in their brains will die with them, essayists have no need to fear: ‘Death has no interest in essays’. At first she was writing for herself, and it was only when she wrote the long title essay, ‘These Precious Days’, that she released she needed to ‘build a shelter for it’. This book is the result.
Marriage has always proven irresistible to my family. We try and fail and try again, somehow maintaining our belief in an institution that has made fools of us all.
So begins the first essay in the book, ‘Three Fathers’, a tribute to the three men who had successively married her mother. They appear in a photo with Patchett herself, three smiling elderly men, all three clasping her hands. All three, she realises, have contributed to her happiness in different ways.
Patchett herself has been married twice, the first time rather briefly, In 1994 she met ‘a nice man called Karl’, and spontaneously invited him on a trip to Vienna. They’ve been together ever since and he pops up in many essays, including one, ‘Flight Plan’, dedicated to his obsession with flying planes. It’s clearly a happy marriage, and a deliberately childless one. A long essay, ‘There are No Children Here’, describes the many occasions when she’s been called upon to defend her decision to remain childless.
There are essays here that make you think about your own life: I was struck by ‘My Year of No Shopping’, in which she describes the experiences of not buying new clothes or any other self-indulgent items for twelve months. Could I do this? Here’s what Patchett discovered:
The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: we can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss too many of life’s details. It’s not as if I kept a ledger and took the money I didn’t spend on perfume and gave that money to the poor, but I came to a better understanding of money as something we earn and spend and save for the things we want and need.
Elsewhere she thinks about knitting, about tattoos, about Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy (‘this was a dog who so fully inhabited his realities that everyone around him saw them too’), about Eudora Welty, about friendships. And a friendship of a very special kind forms the subject of the title essay, ‘These Precious Days’. It all began with Tom Hanks, whose short stories she admired so much that she offered to write a jacket quote for the collection. Slowly, over time, the two encounter each other and come to like each very much. But, Hanks being Hanks, their meetings have to be arranged by his personal assistant Sooki Raphael. Emails are exchanged between them, which gradually become more and more affectionate. Then Sooki reveals that she has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which, despite much gruelling treatment, refuses to go away. One thing leads to another and soon Sooki is staying with Patchett and her husband, who has managed to get her enrolled in a chemotherapy trial at the local hospital. The three days she planned to stay before moving to a hotel stretch and stretch. Soon the two women are spending all their days together, visiting museums, doing yoga, talking. When Sooki finally has to leave, the friendship has become immensely deep. As Patchett writes:
As it turned out, Sooki and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves. Astonishing to come across such friendship at this point in life. At any point in life.
Everything in this collection resonates with love, humanity and kindness. Patchett is sometimes lighthearted, sometimes serious and profound, but always immensely readable. She writes about things many of us will have experienced, but always manages that little slant that makes you think about them in a new way. Lovely book.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Ann Patchett, These Precious Days (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-1526640963, 324pp., hardback.
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