This Review first appeared in The New York Journal of Books: https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/these-precious-days-essays-0
It takes a writer with supernatural depth of field to remind us that life’s seeming trivialities matter. In the aptly named, These Precious Days, author Ann Patchett brings a sense of the sacred to twenty-three, deeply introspective vignettes that shed light on her uncommon life even as they entertain. Each essay is a slice-of-life meditation in topics ranging from family to knitting to the incremental growth of the author’s career. In equal measure, the engaging essays are uniquely personal and resoundingly universal.
Beginning with Three Fathers, Patchett examines the oddity of her paternal background, and reflects upon the individual influences of her mother’s three husbands by noting, “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.” With full disclosure, Patchett adds, “My problems were never ones of scarcity. I suffered from abundance, too much and too many. There are worse problems to have.”
In The First Thanksgiving, Patchett tells the story of learning to cook as a freshman away from home for the holiday and ties it into a life lesson: “On that freezing holiday weekend when my adult life began, I not only learned how to cook, I learned to read,” and “I then went on to use this newfound understanding to great advantage for the rest of my life. Books were not just my education and my entertainment; they were my partners.”
With regard to the beginning stages of her writing career, in the essay, To the Doghouse, Patchett writes about the mysterious powers of childhood influence: “Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open.” Just as the reader prepares for something erudite coming, Patchett waxes rhapsody on the dog, Snoopy, from the Charlie Brown comic strip. “Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated toward Snoopy the dog novelist?”
Going deeper into the topic of her writing career, in A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities, Patchett shares, “I went to Sarah Lawrence College in 1981 and had as good an undergraduate experience as any writer could dream up,” then goes on to depict her two-year experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in which she studied with visiting faculty while teaching literature. Patchette writes, “What I learned in those two years of graduate school came not from being taught but from teaching.” “Teaching made me a better reader and a better thinker. I became more conscious about how I expressed myself, which in turn made me a better writer.”
On friendship, the essay, Tavia, depicts a life-long friendship beginning in the second grade, in which Patchette writes, “Insofar as life is a game show, Tavia Cathcart is my lifeline.” But it is in the book’s eponymous essay, These Precious Days, that Patchett dives deepest while recounting the incremental stages of a significant friendship formed later in life. Of These Precious Days, Patchett writes in the book’s introduction, “It wasn’t until I wrote the title essay, These Precious Days, that I realized I would have to put a book together. That essay was so important to me that I wanted to build a solid shelter for it.” And Patchett did. The introspective essays that lead to the book’s focus catalogue life’s vagaries in such a way as to place your own powers of observation beneath the lens of scrutiny.
In the essay, These Precious Days, Patchett tells of the chance events that aligned to bring one Sookie Raphael into her orbit. An invitation to interview Tom Hanks on stage started a series of email correspondence with Sookie, Tom Hanks’ assistant, and the seeds of friendship planted between Ann and Sookie take root at Ann’s home in Nashville. Under uncannily coincidental circumstances having to do with sheltering Sookie during the treatment of her dire medical prognosis, the women create a dynamic bond that now reads like fate. It is a heartbreaking essay, but in the hands of Patchett it is poignant, life-affirming, and testimony to the power of friendship. In the open-ended conclusion, Patchette writes, “As it turned out, Sookie and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves.”
Two more essays lead to These Precious Days epilogue, serving, by turn, as an opportunity to revisit Ann’s writing career and the subject of her biological father. At this juncture, the reader is intimately familiar with the voice of the author. They’ve been given the great largess of looking beneath the hood of a world-famous writer’s life, and the reprieve given is a chance to regroup before the last essay, A Day at the Beach, in which comes the end of the story of Patchett’s dear friend, Sookie Raphael, the vividly drawn inspiration behind the collection’s title essay.
Like a foray into the heartbeat of a widely beloved author, These Precious Days by Ann Patchett is a powerful essay collection, wonderfully executed and deeply human.
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction. She writes for the New York Times Magazine, Elle, GQ, the Financial Times, the Paris Review and Vogue. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.