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‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’

by Ann Patchett

Harper, 320 pp., $28.99

The title makes it sound like a self-help book, but don’t be fooled: The only advice given in Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” concerns the writing life, not wedded bliss.

As Patchett tells us in the title essay, a minimum of four generations of her family have failed at marriage. After making her own visit to divorce court, Patchett decided that the only way to avoid a return trip was to never marry again. And so begins her tale of an on-and-off, 11-year courtship that suddenly culminated at the altar.

“I am setting out to to tell the story of a happy marriage, my marriage, which does not end in divorce, but every single thing about it starts there,” she writes. “Divorce is the history lesson, that thing that must be remembered in order not to be repeated. Divorce is the rock upon which this church is built.”

Welcome to Patchett Land. No matter what the topic — her career, her dog, her grandmother, the nun who was first her teacher and then her friend — she comes at it in this engaging and breezy way. Sometimes her self-deprecation reads as thinly veiled smugness, as if a more complicated truth was ignored in the process of getting the job done. But she is always entertaining and speaks with particular conviction on the joys and pains of being a writer.

The business of books is the most dominant theme. Patchett talks about her decision to start a bookstore in her hometown of Nashville; she meditates on that necessary evil called the book tour. On her writing career, she speaks as a journeyman, someone who took magazine assignments to support her fiction habit and discovered that freelancing taught her to work even when she didn’t feel like it. So much for writer’s block, she says.

Her first story was published in a literary magazine when she was 20. Seven years later came her first novel, “The Patron Saint of Liars,” composed in her head while waitressing at T.G.I. Friday’s and hammered out at a writer’s residency camp. Almost a decade passed before she caught a wave with her prizewinning, best-selling novel “Bel Canto” in 2001.

All along, Patchett stayed the course, but not without reservations: “I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way,” she writes in “The Getaway Car.” “I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.”

“This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” includes a college convocation address as well as Patchett’s introduction to “Best American Short Stories 2006,” an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that suggests this volume may have been conceived as the link between her last novel, “State of Wonder,” and some work of fiction yet to come. As Patchett would be the first to tell you, the business of books is a voracious beast that must be fed. And she never misses a deadline.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer.