Ann Patchett reflects on love and relationships in new essay collection
"You can't be a real writer if you don't have children," a famous author once told Ann Patchett when they were both speaking at a book festival. Patchett, whose novels include Bel Canto and Commonwealth, has never wanted kids.
"Emily Dickinson," she protested. "Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, Henry James." But the writer insisted that without having children it isn't possible to know what it means to love.
The full-hearted essays collected in These Precious Days are rebuttals, in various forms, of that cruel and limiting idea. The essays, even when they are nominally about something else, are about the weight and grief of relationships: with her father and two stepfathers, her best friend, her husband and, improbably, actor Tom Hanks' assistant, a woman named Sooki with whom Patchett develops a deep bond. "Again and again," she writes in the book's introductory essay, "I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life."
In one essay, "Flight Plan," Patchett describes her fears about her husband's flying hobby: "[I]n the end, it probably won't be the nose tip or the door. It will be something infinitely more mundane. It will be life and time, the things that come for us all. Which doesn't mean I'll be able to keep myself from saying, Careful, call me, come right back."
In "These Precious Days," the essay after which the collection is named, Patchett recalls doing an event with Hanks, but being starstruck instead by his assistant, Sooki. "She said almost nothing and yet my eye kept going to her, the way one's eye goes to the flash of iridescence on a hummingbird's throat. I thought of how extraordinarily famous a person would have to be to have someone like that working as their assistant." They begin a correspondence.
When Sooki is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Patchett offers to have her seen at her husband's hospital in Tennessee, and to stay with them while she's treated. Shortly after Sooki arrives, the pandemic makes travel impossible, and they begin a strange, harmonious, solitary coexistence, cordoned off from the rest of the world. "So many other people would have done anything to be with her— her mother and husband, her daughter and son and grandchildren, her sisters and all of her friends...These precious days I'll spend with you, I sang in my head. Pay attention, I told myself. Pay attention every minute." The result is a beautiful, nearly 70-page tribute to her friend, who died in April 2021.
Some of the essays are weaker than others: An essay on Snoopy has some self-conscious charms but feels essentially irresolute. Some parts of the book feel like excuses to brag about her friends (though of all the forms of writerly self-indulgence, that might be among the easiest to forgive). But at their best, they are a catalogue of all the unexpected ways love can look, if you're imaginative and brave enough to try it — even while knowing that love and grief are two sides of the same coin. "Death always thinks of us eventually," Patchett writes. "The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have."