THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

TITSOAHMThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett

Oh how I dread writing about the books I love. The task makes me wish I had just finished a book I only liked or felt okay about or disliked. These reads lend themselves to short, distilled blog posts much more obediently than the books I love. Because the books that really speak to me have so much to say and I can’t possibly do them justice in less than 600 words – a self-imposed word count that I feel committed to maintaining.

From its title, I had assumed this book was a set of memoir-ish essays about Patchett’s relationship with her husband. And while the eponymous essay in the collection covers that topic, the book as a whole is about the many different kinds of marriages that she has had in her life, it is about the things to which she’s committed herself and loved deeply: her husband ranks high on the list, but so does her reading and writing, her friendships and her dog Rose.

As a species, we tend to catalogue things, especially the things we like. It’s fun to think about what makes us happy and creating lists gives us a sense of order and accomplishment and—I’ll speak for myself here—it can help us remember. But such cataloging and collecting can turn us into people who only skim the surface, who are more consumers than thinkers. Patchett’s collection of essays, carefully culled from the mound of non-fiction she’s crafted over the last 20+ years, is an antidote to these types of superficial, fetishizing tendencies. While the common thread here is clearly that which she adores most, the theme emerged organically through her years of writing and only made itself known explicitly once she started to pull together different pieces that represented her non-fiction career. In other words, Patchett didn’t write “My Ten Faves” at the top of a piece of paper and then proceed to develop corresponding essays.

But I am not Ann Patchett. And (as is evident if you glance to your left) I am not above having lists of faves. So I’ll just go ahead and tell you that within this collection, my favorite essays lean toward the ones about the literary world, the ones describing life on a book tour, opening an independent bookstore and my most favorite of all, The Getaway Car, “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” She also writes beautifully about her relationships—human and canine—like only a true introvert can, with great devotion and depth.

I could feel bitter and resentful that Patchett manages to write about the things she loves with such ease, but instead I can only feel camaraderie because I know that what appears easy for her is in fact the product of a lot of time and hard work. One of her many wonderful analogies in the book compares our ideas to a beautiful butterfly that flits about our heads until we have to kill and pin it in order to get those ideas onto paper. As she says, “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

Up Next: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, recent winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.

ME BEFORE YOU

Me B4 U

Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes

When I ask my friends and family what they’re reading, the answers tend to vary as much as they do. But in the past year, one book kept coming up in conversations: Me Before You, which, it turns out, owes much of its success to just this sort of word-of-mouth promotion.

A couple of you warned me that while you liked the book overall, the writing isn’t exactly notable. And I agree that the narration is clunky at times, but I’ll tell you what my biggest complaint about this book is: its book flap. It’s like one of those movie trailers that leave you feeling like you’ve already seen the entire film. But you go to see the movie anyway and then you end up blaming the writer for making something so predictable. In this case, the book flap description takes us right up to the penultimate scene in the story, at which point we’ve already guessed what the final scene will be and while it’s a lovely one, I can only imagine how much lovelier it would have been had I not seen it coming a mile away.

For those of you who have not yet read this book or the flap inside its cover, I’ll try to give you an inkling of the plot without spoiling the whole thing. Me Before You is a love story between a sheltered young woman in a small English town and a slightly older quadriplegic man. The British class system is examined, as is the meaning of life; a great setup and, despite my minor frustrations along the way, I was compelled. I worried about the characters while making dinner and realized that I’d only pick up the book when I knew I’d have a good chunk of time to read because it would be too hard to put it down again.

The book’s working-class heroine narrates most of the story and though I didn’t love that aspect of the writing, after a while, I kept hearing the voice of Downton Abbey’s assistant cook, Daisy, in this narration. You can blame this on the show’s recent season premiere and my lack of imagination, but once Daisy had entered my subconscious, it occurred to me that I was enjoying the book in the same way I enjoy Downton. While both have some heavy-handed and repetitive themes, in each case the characters keep me coming back for more. Beyond the pretty clothes they wear against pretty backdrops (also big draws), Downton’s characters often get in some good lines. And a witty retort does it for me every time.

Me Before You has its own fair share of witty retorts and enough snarky dialogue to endear me to the characters delivering it. With a plot that could easily veer into the melodramatic, the wry humor of the story’s characters gives it the balance required to be moving without becoming overly sentimental. And in its sometimes clunky but nonetheless gripping way, it manages to make you think about what it means to live and to value each day. Thanks to everyone who recommended it to me.