"The year 2020 didn't seem like a great time to start a family, or a business, or a novel," muses Ann Patchett in the introduction to "These Precious Days," her second collection of essays, following "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" (2013) and similarly packed with warm, funny stories of family, friends, dogs, books and writing.
Novelists, explains Patchett, live with the fear that they might die before finishing the book they are working on. "Before she boards a plane, one friend sends me instructions as to where in her house she's hidden a thumb drive with the files for her uncompleted novel; another friend asks me if I could just finish her book for her if she dies."
Fortunately, Patchett finds she can crank out nonfiction without a whisper from the Grim Reaper. "Death," she says, "has no interest in essays."
Ah, but essays are interested in death. The mission of memoir is to bring back, at least on the page, lost loved ones, times past and places left behind, and Patchett brings to this reclamation project the abundant literary gifts that light up her nine novels. To that artisanship is added the electricity that only true stories have, the hot current of personal revelation and intimacy.
Nothing embodies this better than the title essay, which went viral when published in Harper's this past January. It describes the intense friendship Patchett formed with Tom Hanks' assistant Sooki, whom she met when interviewing Hanks on stage in D.C. The relationship took root via e-mail as Sooki was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, and bloomed when Patchett's doctor husband got her into a drug trial in Nashville. In the course of it, Sooki ended up living with Ann and Karl for much of the lockdown, a magical period that included kundalini yoga, oil painting and psilocybin mushrooms. The essay is long, luxuriantly so, lingering on all the "precious days" it describes, as one does when death is waiting at the door.
Another standout, "My Three Fathers," is accompanied by a photo of the author with her biological dad and two stepfathers taken at a family wedding. After the event, she heard that one of them 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.'"
Many years later, he was proven right. Those three fathers are now back in business, at least in the world of the imagination, and in telling us about them, Patchett captures something important and comforting about the different ways one might turn out to be a good parent. One of the most endearing parts of the essay describes her relationship with the stepfather who was an aspiring writer, involving some 20 thousand pages of novel manuscripts regularly FedEx'd to her doorstep. "I grew up in the weather of his insanity, and yet the gifts he gave me are legion."
Patchett's is the perfect book for this time of year, an inspiration to recall and give thanks for the good we've been given, even if some of it has long since gone away.
Marion Winik is a writer and professor in Balitmore.
These Precious Days
By: Ann Patchett.
Publisher: Harper, 336 pages, $26.99.
Virtual event: In conversation with Kate DiCamillo, 5:30 p.m. Dec. 2. Tickets $5, or with signed book $30-$33. https://www.raintaxi.com/ann-patchett/