The American Spinster Review of Ann Pachett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
I first heard of this book sitting in my car listening to NPR. I was on my lunch break from the grocery store, where I worked with some of the best co-workers I’d ever had. All but one were married women, and even the unmarried one planned to have a husband and children one day. Any spinster-by-choice knows what it’s like to be friends with moms-by-choice. There’s a gap of understanding that, no matter how fond you are of each other, will never really close.
So, that day, waiting for my 30 minute break to be up, I turned on the car radio. The NPR program had only just started. Though I’d never heard of Ann Patchett before then, after listening for just a few minutes I knew I had to read this book.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of non-fiction essays, articles, and speeches written by novelist Ann Patchett. Don’t let the title fool you; Patchett may include the story of a happy marriage, but the book is also largely about being a happy, unmarried, independent woman. From a young age, Patchett saw most marriage around her ending in divorce. Throughout the articles, she describes her family history of divorce (her parents were each divorced at least once, her grandparents, and even great-grandparents had been divorced), the divorces of her friends’ parents, and her own divorce (her first marriage lasted a very difficult 14 months). Ultimately, she realized the only way to “beat the system” was to never marry.
In the titular story, Patchett recounts the 11-year courtship that ultimately led to her second marriage. It may be the story of a happy marriage, but it’s also, in some ways, a blueprint to having a happy relationship. “[N]ot being married had saved us. Had I said yes to Karl’s initial proposal… I don’t think we would have made it. By not living together, we could fight and then step away to cool off. I would think at least we’re not married, which is so much better than thinking, I can’t stay married to you.”
Despite the fact that her boyfriend Karl had wanted to marry her from the outset, she remained firm. “[H]ow could I, who carried divorce in my veins all the way back to Denmark, be absolutely positive that it wouldn’t happen this time? … no matter how much I loved Karl, I wasn’t naive. And I wasn’t getting married.”
Of course, they do get married, after 11 years. They marry because they learn that he has a terminal heart condition. As a spouse, Patchett would be able to care for him and make decisions that she couldn’t make as a girlfriend. She sells her house, they marry, and she laments not marrying long ago, before the love of her life was dying. It was Karl who assures her that it was “exactly the right time.”
Other stories in the book speak to the childfree woman. Patchett writes about her dog, Rose, and how she doted on her. She kept pictures of Rose in her wallet, stayed home with her all day, left her with a baby sitter when she needed to run errands. Patchett writes,
“Look at that,” people said, looking at me but not Rose. “Look how badly she wants a baby.”
A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. “A dog,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” The truth is, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else’s stroller. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalks to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.
Others insisted that she really wanted a baby, sometimes going so far as to suggest she simply didn’t realize that’s what she was really yearning for. In the NPR program, Patchett uses the analogy of missing keys.
It would be like if somebody said, “Your car keys are in the drawer.” And you go and you open the drawer, and not only are your car keys not in the drawer, there’s nothing in the drawer. The drawer is empty. And you come back and you say, “The keys aren’t in the drawer.” And they say, “no go back and look again. They are in the drawer.” And you go back and you open the drawer and it is empty. And that’s how I always felt. Like people were always saying to me, “Go back and look again. Examine the inner contents of your heart, you will find it.” And I never did.
For the happily unmarried, happily childfree woman, reading Patchett’s collection is like finding a kindred spirit. At last, someone who understands! Someone who realizes that I’m not in denial, I’m not afraid. I just don’t want what I’m supposed to want.
Although the book at times seems like an unusual combination of autobiography and instructional essays, it’s a captivating look at the author’s life. Perhaps its fitting that the topics vary so widely, since in Patchett’s life, business and home life, personal journeys and public publications, are so closely entwined. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage will be a welcomed read for anyone who is happily unmarried, or happily childfree, but is also a wonderful introduction to the spinster lifestyle for those who are uninitiated. I recommend reading it, and I recommend giving it to friends and family who don’t yet believe that anyone can be truly happy in this lifestyle. Ann Patchett makes our case well.