Ann Patchett's 'These Precious Days' is a beautiful reminder of what's important
These Precious Days: Essays
By Ann Patchett
Harper. 320 pp. $26.99
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I remember exactly where I was when I first read Ann Patchett's January cover story for Harper's Magazine, a lengthy essay about friendship and art and cancer and the pandemic, although summarizing it in that way doesn't do justice to the full scope of the piece — a tribute that manages to encapsulate and distill the ways in which friendship can be a lifeline, a transformation, a sharpening of the lens. I was sitting in my chair at my kitchen table, not exactly in a comfortable position, but once I started reading, I couldn't move, unable to break the spell, until I finished in tears and sent it to a dear friend.
That essay serves as the title piece in Patchett's new collection, "These Precious Days," a book of new and previously published but revised pieces. Read as a whole, it's clear that Patchett is at her best when given the opportunity to write beyond the maximum word count dictated by most newspapers and magazines.
In the title essay, Patchett doesn't just recount but relives an unexpected friendship with the late Sooki Raphael, who first came into her life because she was Tom Hanks's assistant. The two women met before Patchett interviewed the actor in front of a live audience, but it wasn't Hanks that Patchett was star-struck by, it was Sooki's vibrant presence: "a tiny woman wearing a fitted evening coat with saucer-size peonies embroidered onto black velvet."
Their fondness for each other grew via email, until Sooki revealed that she had pancreatic cancer, and Patchett's husband, a doctor, enabled her to be part of a clinical trial at the Nashville hospital where he works. Sooki moved into their home at Patchett's insistence before the COVID-19 pandemic, then stayed during lockdown, becoming a crucial part of their everyday life. It was in Patchett's presence where she was able to flourish and focus on her artwork, and her painting of Patchett's dog, Sparky (which captures the animal's inquisitive and tender expression in colorful swirls; Patchett compares it to Matisse), graces the cover of the book. To read this piece is to be suspended in the intimacy and connection and collaboration of a friendship between two artists inhabiting the liminal space of terminal illness. Every second is, indeed, precious, and Patchett's prose is as welcoming and comforting as the chickpea stew Sooki cooks for her.
The other standout essay in the collection is "There Are No Children Here," in which Patchett talks about not wanting to be a mother — a topic that deserves more attention and still feels taboo in certain circles. "I have just enough energy to write, keep up with the house, be a decent friend, a decent daughter and sister and wife. Part of not wanting children has always been the certainty that I didn't have the energy for it, and so I had to make a choice, the choice between children and writing. ... History offers some examples of people who've done a good job with children and writing, I know that, but I wasn't one of those people," she writes.
Part of what's refreshing in reading Patchett's nonfiction is having a window into her discipline as a writer and her deep understanding of herself. This knowledge has made it possible for her to create the kind of life that suits her: devoting her hours to writing books and putting other people's stories into eager hands as the owner of Parnassus Books.
Several of the essays deal with the idea of holding onto things (as in "The Nightstand," where Patchett goes through her earliest writing, which her mother saved for her, against her will) and letting things go. In "How to Practice," she takes inventory of what she needs and what she doesn't. "I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death. They didn't protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like many layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now, I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I'd accumulated. I had begun the journey of digging out."
Excavating is crucial to her process as a writer and human being. In the introduction, Patchett notes what stood out to her as she pulled the collection together. "Again and again, I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life." Whether she turns her gaze to her three fathers, her beautiful mother, her husband's delight in piloting a plane, or her friendships, there's a generosity in the way she not only looks at the world but invites the reader in to stay for a while.