“These Precious Days,” Ann Patchett’s generous new collection of essays, nearly all of which were previously published in periodicals, offers a burst of warm positivity. Like her first collection, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” (2013), this appealing mix of the personal and the professional highlights the centrality of books, family, friendship, and compassion in Patchett’s life.
At the heart of “These Precious Days” is the title essay, a tribute to a woman Patchett befriended in what turned out to be the last years of the woman’s life. Patchett, who memorialized her difficult, intense friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy in “Truth & Beauty” (2004), has an easier time celebrating her less complicated, serendipitous relationship with Sooki Raphael, Tom Hanks’ longtime personal assistant.
Patchett’s essays often carry life lessons. What she learns from Sooki is to remember to treasure and pay attention to every precious moment. Another lesson here is about the deep gratification of extending oneself. That’s what Patchett did when she opened her Nashville home to Sooki so her new friend could participate in a medical trial not then available in her home state of California. Patchett, a born nurturer, writes that even though she barely knew Sooki at that point, “there have been few moments in my life when I have felt so certain: I was supposed to help.”
Sooki turns out to be an ideal houseguest – self-sufficient, tidy, quiet, thoughtful. When the pandemic hits, they go into lockdown together with Patchett’s husband, Karl VanDevender, a doctor who helped arrange for Sooki’s enrollment in the trial. Patchett spends her days writing or packing books to ship from her closed bookstore. Between treatments, Sooki finally gets to devote herself to her passion: painting. The two women practice yoga and cook vegetarian meals together. “Most of the writers and artists I know were made for sheltering in place,” Patchett writes. “The world asks us to engage, and for the most part we can, but given the choice, we’d rather stay home.”
When it’s time for Sooki to fly back to her family in Los Angeles, Patchett is reminded of heart-wrenching separations from her divorced father at the end of each summer’s weeklong visit. “As it turned out,” she writes, “Sooki and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves. Astonishing to come across such a friend at this point in life. At any point in life.”
“These Precious Days” isn’t the only essay that evoked tears. In several pieces, Patchett writes movingly of her father, a Los Angeles police detective who disapproved of her single-minded determination to become a writer. But her father’s skepticism gave her an unexpected gift: “Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval.” She proceeded with her dream, although she tried not to offend his moral sensibilities. “I found plenty of things to write about that weren’t smoking or swearing or sex.” She goes on to write, “With the extra time and energy they had, my characters went out and saw the world.”
Throughout the essays, Patchett seeks the essential: “I could watch myself grappling with the same themes in my writing and in my life: what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take,” she writes. “Again and again, I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life.”
In addition to her father, Patchett celebrates her two stepfathers and her husband and his lifelong love of flying. She writes about the relief of reining in materialism by paring down and not shopping: “If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what other people don’t have.”
Discussing her profession, Patchett quips, “Flexibility was what writers got instead of health insurance,” and “The price of living with a writer was that eventually she would write about you.” In “Three Fathers,” she confesses to arranging for the group photograph that will eventually accompany her triple-tribute after all three dads have died. In “Cover Stories,” she doesn’t mince words about her disappointment with her early book jackets, and points out that, ironically, the adage “Never judge a book by its cover … doesn’t apply to actual books. … Covers are what we have to go on.” On the cover of this book, Sooki’s colorful portrait of Patchett’s dog, Sparky, is a clear winner.
So, too, is Patchett. Is she too good to be believed? Lucy Grealy accused her of a sainthood complex. True, this is a person who feels shame at owning seven mixing bowls. But in an essay about her intentional childlessness, she shows clear annoyance at people’s thoughtless comments.
Bottom line: Patchett is a person you want to spend time with – on the page or in person.