Ann Patchett is one our greatest living writers, and her novels have won copious awards. She is also prolific, and always seems to have a new novel in the works. However, when the pandemic took over our lives in 2020, Patchett realized that—like many of us— she did not have the mental bandwidth for an extended project, but she found solace in short memoirs and essays. Some of the selections in this volume have appeared in a different form in the past, but some are new, including the longest piece in the book, the title story.
Patchett’s topics vary widely, from a clear-eyed tribute to her three fathers—one biological and two stepfathers—to another generous piece about growing up with an exceptionally beautiful mother. There are references to becoming a bookstore owner, being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an address to the Association of Graduate School Deans. As a children’s librarian, I found her essay about reading Kate DiCamillo’s books to be especially heartwarming. It was like having two of my best friends meet for the first time and discover that they really like each other.
I read her piece about her husband’s exploits as a pilot out loud to my husband, and we both enjoyed it thoroughly. We both laughed at the funny parts, but I think I understood her distress about his safety more than David did. Her story entitled, “How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice,” hit a deep chord. She related how she had learned to knit as a child, but never appreciated it as much as when a close friend died recently. I learned to knit just a few years ago when I knit a blanket for my first grandson, who then died. My second project was an extravagant shawl for myself, far beyond my skills and with yarn I couldn’t afford. I made a mistake about halfway through and left it in, because there are some scars that never disappear. Knitting saved my life, too.
Ann Patchett is blessed with many good friends, and she writes funny and loving stories about them. Her title story relates how she came to know Tom Hanks, and how he later agreed to narrate the audiobook of her beautiful novel The Dutch House (reviewed here). Through a series of coincidences, Hanks’ assistant, Sookie, came to live with Ann and her physician husband in Nashville while she underwent clinical trials to treat pancreatic cancer just as the pandemic shut everything down. The memoir explores the discomfort of sharing spaces with a virtual stranger, the desire to do good when good is hard to discern, and the anguish of the terminally ill when they are forbidden to say goodbye to loved ones.
Although very little of this collection is about the pandemic, it is perfect reading when our thinking is scattered and we need books that don’t require an extended attention span. All of the pieces are written in Patchett’s exquisite style that won the PEN/Faulkner Award and made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Of course, if you’re tucked in for the winter, you can’t do better than The Dutch House, Bel Canto, State of Wonder, or any of her other brilliant novels.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.