These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

I consider myself an Ann Patchett fan, having read eight of her books by now. Although she’s better known for her novels, I have a slight preference for her nonfiction – Truth and Beauty, her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy; and her two collections of autobiographical essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and now These Precious Days, which made it onto my Best of 2021 list last month. Compared to the previous volume, the essays here, though no less sincere and thoughtful, are more melancholy. The preoccupation with death and drive to simplify life (“My Year of No Shopping,” “How to Practice”) seem appropriate for Covid times.

The opening essay, “Three Fathers,” gives wry portraits of her father and her two stepfathers, contrasting their careers, her relationship with each, and their deaths. In a final piece before the epilogue, she notes the bittersweet privilege of her membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters – new members are only inducted to replace senior ones, for each of whom she receives a death notice in the mail. Memento mori are everywhere; “The human impulse is to look for order, but there isn’t any. People come and go. When you try to find your place among all the living and dead, the numbers are unmanageable.”

The long title essay, first published in Harper’s, is about her stranger-than-fiction friendship with Tom Hanks’s personal assistant, Sooki Raphael (her painting of Patchett’s dog Sparky adorns the cover). They first made contact after Patchett read an early copy of Hanks’s short story collection, gave it a nice endorsement, and then interviewed him at the D.C. stop on his book tour. Sooki had recurrent pancreatic cancer; Patchett’s husband Karl, a doctor, got her into a medical trial in Nashville and she lived with them throughout her treatment, including during Covid. There are so many twists to this story, so many moments when it might have faltered. Patchett is well aware of the unlikelihood and uses it to comment on her own plots, and the fact that sometimes what she thinks a novel is about ends up being far from the truth.

Patchett also expresses her appreciation of other authors (“Eudora Welty, an introduction,” “Reading Kate DiCamillo”), looks back to her young adulthood (“The First Thanksgiving,” “The Paris Tattoo”) and explores her other key relationships: her ever-youthful mother is the subject of “Sisters,” she celebrates a childhood friend in “Tavia,” and her worry over her 16-years-older husband fuels “Flight Plan” (about his amateur pilot hobby) and “The Moment Nothing Changed” (about his heart attack scare). Many of the shorter pieces first appeared in other publications or anthologies; a few verge on throwaway if I’m being harsh (did we need the essays on Snoopy and knitting?).

But it’s the approach that distinguishes the work as a whole: a clear eye on herself and others; honesty and deep emotion that never tip into mawkishness. I also enjoyed the little glimpses into her everyday domestic life, as well as her work behind the scenes at Parnassus Books. The one essay that meant the most to me, though, was “There Are No Children Here,” which matter-of-factly covers everything I’d ever like to say or hear about childlessness. At their best, Patchett’s books are not just pleasant reads but fond companions on the journey of life, and that’s how I felt about this one. (Susan included it on her list of comfort reading, too.)

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

23 responses

  1. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I’m so glad you loved this, too. I agree about that melancholy note and was also struck, perhaps for the same reasons, by her honest, no-nonsense approach to choosing not to have children. Lovely description of Patchett’s books as ‘fond companions on the journey of life’!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m partial to autobiographical essays in general, but Patchett’s have that added warmth. I loved having the collection on the go while I was in the States for the holidays.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As you know, I loved this as well! I agree that some of the shorter pieces felt insubstantial, but I too liked the essay on childlessness. My other two favourites were ‘Flight Plan’ and the title essay.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d go along with that top 3!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I will get to this eventually. It’s nice having your hearty recommendation! I have enjoyed all of her previous nonfiction very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Essays are a nice thing to have in the stack. You can read one or two (of the shorter ones, anyway) before bed, or between other books.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I wasn’t aware that she wrote non-fiction too. Thanks for the tip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Highly recommended! I hope your library has some to sample.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Her essay collection is high on my Wish List. Sometime this year, I hope to acquire it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent; I do hope you enjoy!

      Like

  6. This was a dabbled and tasted book for me last year but I really enjoyed what I read. She’s just so good. Like Lorrie Moore though, she can catch me offguard and make me cry!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m listening to the audio book right now–and skipped over Snoopy today. No, I don’t need an essay on Snoopy, ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I got this in the Waterstones half-price sale. Amazingly I’ve never read her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’ll be an interesting place to start!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your review helped move this book closer to the top of the TBR pile (along with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). I have only read her fiction work up to this point and I am eager to read her personal writing – especially intrigued by her chapter on choosing a childfree life. My personal favorite, State of Wonder (fiction), is worth checking out – I recently learned that she traveled to the area the story is set in for research (the Amazon region) – that is a committed writer! I am a Patchett fan for life after having the opportunity to attend an author event (a few years ago), where she talked about her writing process and opening her bookstore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I’d love to see her live. Commonwealth is probably my favorite of her fiction (though I’ve not read her first couple of novels yet).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have always liked Patchett’s novels, but still haven’t read any of her nonfiction. But I’d love to! I was actually wondering about the cover of the book, so now I know! I knew there must have been a story behind it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are more of her paintings as illustrations in the Harper’s article.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Ann Patchett and Neil Gaiman both write much-hyped novels with beautiful writing and plots that I find a bit underwhelming and I loved Gaiman’s essay collection, so I’m thinking I should give Patchett’s a chance as well! They sound like something I’d enjoy 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had no idea Gaiman had written nonfiction. I’ve read a couple of his YA novels and enjoyed them. I’ve been underwhelmed by a couple of Patchett’s novels myself: Bel Canto and State of Wonder didn’t stand out for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] 10 books and is esteemed in literary circles; Ann Patchett even dedicated her latest release, These Precious Days, to […]

    Liked by 1 person

  13. […] Tom Hanks features in the delightful story behind the title essay of These Precious Days by Ann Patchett: after Patchett interviewed him on his book tour, she became close with his […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: