Review by Nicole Louie
When I first saw Ann Patchett’s book, These Precious Days: Essays, I wondered why the cover has a colorful portrait of a cute dog on the back of a couch. Sifting through two dozen essays spanning almost six decades of Ann’s life, I’d soon learn it was Sparky, a shelter dog that she and her husband had adopted, and the heartwarming story behind the making of the painting.
From her memories of growing up in Tennessee, her three fathers, her wild summer in Europe when she was nineteen, her year of no shopping and decluttering habit, her life-changing friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant, Sooki, to their routine during the pandemic while Sooki received treatment for pancreatic cancer, this book pulled me in many different times and directions. Yet never once was it disorienting.
Patchett’s author voice — always affectionate and serene (even through much turmoil and grief) — acts as a confident guiding hand that allows us to partake in some of the most precious moments in her life without feeling like we are intruding but not entirely as spectators. This well-calibrated sense of proximity makes most of the stories irresistible. Maybe it has to do with how approachable Patchett’s prose is and how she doesn’t bother embellishing her sentences for impact. Instead, she focuses on recounting facts and emotions — which are not all complex or deep. And in her book, the simple and less profound ones, too, must be told.
I like that she doesn’t tire us as readers when reenacting her experiences with family, friends, relationships, vocation, dreams, and death. I’m also fond of her reflections on the importance of being open to new experiences (e.g., taking mushrooms in her 50s) at all stages in life while, at the same time, being reminded to honor our true heart’s desires. In her case, all she ever wanted to do was write, open a bookstore, and not have children so she could give herself entirely to the pages, places and people with whom she chose to connect.
Her self-assuredness regarding not wanting children in the essay, “There Are No Children Here” is refreshing. Even as someone who never felt the need to explain my decision not to become a mother to others, I found myself looking up to her. That’s how few mainstream role models exist for living an unapologetic childfree life. A media appearance she highlights exemplifies at least one reason why:
“I landed a spot on a national radio talk show I’d never been on before (…). She wanted to know how I felt about not having had children.
I feel fine about it.
Do you regret your decision?
No, I said. I don’t regret it.
Do you feel that as a woman you were forced to choose between your work as a writer and having children?
No, I said. No one forced me to do anything. I just didn’t want children (…).
Chances are you’ll be alone at the end of your life. Don’t you worry about that?
I bought long-term care insurance, I said.
It wasn’t the answer she was looking for.
When the interview aired, all the questions about my childlessness had been edited out.”
Here and there, a few excerpts containing repeated themes or Catholic references threw me off, but not for long. I treated them as exchanges between friends with different backgrounds. I say “friends” because when I reached the last paragraph, I couldn’t help but believe that I had somehow been teleported to Nashville and spent a whole day with Ann Patchett talking about what it is like to read, write, and sell books in the local neighborhood where everybody knows her. How precious is that? Very, I’ll say. Very precious.
Thank you, Nicole!
Nicole Louie is a writer, translator, and content curator based in Ireland. She is dedicated to finding and sharing the stories of amazing women without children both online and in her upcoming non-fiction book on childlessness. She can be found on Twitter and on Instagram: @bynicolelouie.