THESE PRECIOUS DAYS: TESTS by Ann Patchett, Harper, 320 pages, $ 26.99
I remember exactly where I was when I first read Ann Patchett’s cover story for Harper magazine, a lengthy essay on friendship, art, cancer, and the pandemic, although summarizing it this way does not do justice to the full scope of the article; a tribute that manages to sum up and distill the ways in which friendship can be a lifeline, a transformation, a sharpening of purpose. 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 ended up in tears and sent it to a dear friend.
This essay serves as the title piece in Patchett’s new collection, Those precious days, a book of new and previously published but revised plays (two of which first appeared in The Washington Post). Read as a whole, it’s clear that Patchett is at his best when given the ability to write in excess of 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’ assistant. The two met before Patchett interviewed the actor in front of a live audience, but it wasn’t Hanks who struck the star, it was Sooki’s vibrant presence: “a petite woman wearing a coat evening dress with saucer-sized peonies embroidered on black velvet.
Their affection for each other grew over email, until Sooki revealed she had pancreatic cancer and Patchett’s husband, a doctor, allowed her to participate in 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 the lockdown, becoming a crucial part of their daily lives. It was in the presence of Patchett that she was able to flourish and focus on her works, and her painting of Patchett’s dog, Sparky (which captures the animal’s curious and tender expression in colorful swirls; Patchett compares him to Matisse), adorns the cover of the book. To read this piece is to be suspended in the intimacy, 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 heartwarming as the chickpea stew Sooki cooks for it.
The other notable 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 remains taboo in some circles. “I have just enough energy to write, keep up with the house, be a decent friend, a decent daughter, sister and wife. Part of not wanting kids has always been the certainty that I didn’t have the energy for it, so I had to make a choice, the choice between children and writing. … The story offers some examples of people who did a great job with children and writing, I know that, but I was not one of those people, ”she writes.
Part of what’s refreshing about reading Patchett’s non-fiction is having a window into her discipline as a writer and her deep understanding of herself. This knowledge has enabled him to create the kind of life that is right for him: devoting his hours to writing books and putting the stories of others in passionate hands as the owner of Parnassus Books.
Several of the essays deal with the idea of hanging on to things (as in “The Nightstand,” where Patchett reviews his early writings, which his mother kept to herself, against her will) and letting things go. In “How to Practice”, she takes stock of what she needs and what she doesn’t need. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the unnecessary ones, because the 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 to come and the beauty that was here now , I thought of the piles of shiny trinkets that I had accumulated. I had started the digging journey.
The excavation is crucial for his process as a writer and as a human being. In the introduction, Patchett notes what stood out when she put the collection together. “Over and over again, I wondered what mattered most about this precarious and precious life. Whether she looks to her three fathers, her stepmother, her husband’s pleasure in flying a plane or her friendships, there is a generosity in the way she not only looks at the world but invites the reader to stay. one moment.