[I read eight or so of the essays in this 2021 collection, gave up—although not not before writing about them—then read a few more and wrote about them before giving up for good. Spoiler alert: this is a running commentary, so there are spoilers.]
28 February 2022
The first eight essays and some of the ninth
These essays are about Ann Patchett’s life, to the extent that the collection might be regarded as a kind of autobiography. Which is where a part of the problem lies for me—I never read autobiographies, and I’ve never read anything by Ann Patchett anyway… so I’m really not the target audience. I have no complaints about her as a writer as such—which is good, because it’s clear that being able to identify as a writer is a very big thing for her. Several of these essays, really, are mainly about that fact. For instance there’s To the Doghouse, in which her love of the Peanuts comic strips comes down, in the end, to her bonding with Snoopy. He showed a young, aspiring writer that writing can be cool. And no, I’m not making this up. Ann Patchett’s fans must be loving this stuff.
And she clearly wants to come across as a thoughtful writer, by occasionally by focusing her attention on aspects of life that others might scurry past or take for granted. Sometimes she’ll ask the big questions, especially in the ironically-titled The Worthless Servant. This is about a Catholic priest she knows who devotes his life selflessly to people at the bottom of society. The device she’s chosen in order to write it—there’s always a device helping her shape these essays—is that she had been asked to choose a saint to write about and chose this man instead. How does she put it? ‘The trick’—that is, the trick she attributes to Father Strobel, who would much prefer you to call him Charlie because saints are modest like that—‘is in the decision to wake up every morning and meet the world again with love. I have to think the pyrotechnics of sainthood—crucifixion and Catherine wheels, the fire and stake—would be easier than this tireless, unconditional love.’ Of course, she isn’t pretending to follow his example, because who could?
So, really, this essay is autobiographical too, focusing on how we ordinary people have to come to terms with the limited amount of good we are able to do. Ann Patchett is famous and, if we are to believe her, is able to use her fame to create successful charity events. Maybe that will be enough. Certainly, if the priest is right, God loves whatever she does. And you. And me. Bless. And it seems that through describing this living saint, Ann Patchett is able to confirm what we know from the start. Here is a woman who is very comfortable indeed in her own skin.
Am I jealous? I don’t think I am, any more than I am jealous of the Catholic faith that seems to offer her powerful sustenance. It suits her, along with all those other things she’s told me about her life. But none of it reaches me, and I’ve been trying to get to grips with why that might be. Take the ninth of these essays, Flight Plan, which I’ve started but not finished. She’s describing what must be an eye-wateringly expensive holiday in Alaska with husband No.2, I think (who’s counting?), and they’ve become a bit bored. Their daily expeditions involve flying—flying!—to fishing-lakes, where there seem to be no more fish than in the lake next to their hotel. So, what to do? Get a guide to take them out into the glorious wilderness on foot? Spend a few days meditating on the smallness of humanity in the face of nature?
Don’t be ridiculous. She’s willing to sit alongside the husband after he’s asked the pilot to let him fly the little sea-plane they’re in. He’s flown before, even if he isn’t yet fully qualified, and yes, he does get it that landing on water is different from landing on the ground…. I’ll try and find the sentence that made me give up on this book, possibly forever. Except I realise now—I’ve just been looking—it was my growing understanding over a couple of pages that I really, really, don’t want to know any more about Ann Patchett’s life. Before her husband takes the controls, she tells us that she is ‘no stranger to the single engine.’ Her stepfather Mike seems to have rented planes like other people rent cars, and her mother had enough lessons to fly solo so that she could land the plane if Mike was indisposed. Later, he buys a helicopter—it’s a ‘tiny’ red one, as if that makes it any less of an indulgence—but his mother never does learn how to land it. How we laughed.
What is so grating for me is the complete lack of any understanding that this very American disregard for the effects of a go-anywhere lifestyle might not be to everyone’s taste. In an earlier chapter, she mourns the loss of an entire town she knew as a child through a recent wildfire but, so far, she hasn’t made the connection to climate change. And, to be frank, I’m not prepared to hang around to see if awareness will eventually dawn.
I suppose it’s the unselfconscious sense of entitlement that gets to me. Pratchett isn’t from a wealthy background, but she is an American success story, and takes an awful lot of things for granted. I also live a life more privileged than the vast majority of humanity, so everything is relative here. But, in addition to frictionless travel, Pratchett seems obsessed with stuff. There’s a chapter about how she forced herself to stop shopping in her usual thoughtless way, another in which she describes a truly marvellous, marvellous man—I’m paraphrasing—who, while he lived, never stopped changing the way he presented himself to his friends and students. Fine. But in the process he acquired such a houseful of possessions it took his daughters months to sort everything out after his death. It makes Pratchett decide in her late fifties that she’ll sort out her own life so nobody will ever be faced with the chore of having to it after she’s gone. Fine, again. Except the details of what she throws out, how difficult some of it is, the room-by-room overturning of years of acquisitiveness, is one of the dullest things I’ve ever read.
As I think I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t care.
The rest of the ninth essay, plus two or three more
April Fool. I’m talking about me, for deciding to give Ann Patchett another try. I started by reading to the end of the one about the men in her life who like flying, and how she feels about it. She feels all right, although she spends many elegant paragraphs telling us how visceral is her sense of the danger her current husband is always in when he’s flying alone, despite her being utterly certain at a rational level that he’s completely safe. Go figure. Or don’t, because Patchett has done the figuring for us. It’s all about the human connection, so that if she’s in the plane with him, she feels 100 per cent safe. If she isn’t, that old dread returns, so that she’s making funeral plans in her head until the moment he arrives home.
What Patchett writes about, endlessly, is herself. A big part of her narrative is to do with the people she feels connected to, which only seems to take her into other people’s lives to a very limited degree. This isn’t really about them, and I realise I should have realised from the start. Patchett herself issues a kind of warning in that first essay, the one about her three fathers—really, of course, her father and the two other men her mother married, Mike and Darrell. The tone is winningly self-deprecatory, referring to how neither her mother nor she had ever been able to pick the right husband first time. And it continues to be like this when she describes the taking of the photograph of herself with these three men—the only illustration in the book—that comes at the beginning. They are all at a wedding and, after photogrphs have been taken of ‘every possible configuration of family and friends,’ she insists on this one. Then comes the knowing little aside, after a call from her father later. This is him talking:
‘“Mike said, ‘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.’” My father said the idea hadn’t occurred to him, and it wouldn’t have occurred to Darrell, but as soon as Mike said it, they knew he was right.
‘He was right. That was exactly what I meant to do. That is exactly what I’m doing now.’
That look-at-me one-line paragraph ends a section of the essay. She wants us to notice it—which I did, but not to the degree that I understood that this is what she always seems to do. Other people come into her life and make it more interesting. She doesn’t go overboard on any emotional involvement, mainly telling us why her friends and family are great people, and the sorts of things they have done together over the years.
I know, I know. I’ve taken against Ann Patchett, and she can’t do anything right for me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s her fault or mine that she presses all the wrong buttons for me, but she just does. Her grandmother teaching her to knit saved her life, twice. (It became something to do with her hands when she was giving up smoking, twice.) Her bestest friend is the best in every way, and she’s Ann’s best friend. (Tavia) Other people are shocked and amazed that she, Ann Patchett, has never wanted children, and she puts them right, one by one. She does it in 23 sections of the long essay I’ve given up on. (There Are No Children Here) I got as far as the eleventh section, the one in which she tells us robustly how manipulated she felt when the adoption service advertised by pretending that Stevie, a charming little Black boy, was up for grabs. In fact, he was just ‘a bait and a switch…. They knew how to bang the floor to bring people like me out of the woodwork.’ But ‘I didn’t want a child, I wanted Stevie.’ She makes herself feel happier about it by imagining him ‘in the safest chamber of my heart,’ where he stayed in a lovely imagined home until ‘I finally wrote a novel about him.’
Jesus. I was wondering when this super-white author might get around to mentioning anybody Black—we can assume, I think, that her current husband’s students when he taught in Rhodesia were as white as he is—and here he is, a bit-part player in another essay about Ann Patchett’s inner life.
I’ll shut up now, and that really is it this time.