London journalist Christina Patterson wanted to read a book called, I Feel So Awful I Don’t Know What to Do. There was no such book, so she wrote The Art of Not Falling Apart.
Patterson had every reason in the world to fall apart. At thirteen, she started to get tiny bumps all over her face. By twenty-three, she said, “My face was covered in deep red lumps. They throbbed for days, and then turned into giant pustules.” Her sister was hospitalized with schizophrenia at fourteen. Her cousin was clinically depressed and survived an overdose.
At twenty-six, Patterson was told she had lupus. There were times when the pain was so bad she could barely walk. She lost the job that she loved — one of the most devastating losses of all, as her work was what kept her going when everything else was falling apart. Patterson also lost her faith and the community that came with it. Breast cancer happened at age forty. She was “carved, and radiated, and drugged and reconstructed.” Six years later, the cancer returned. She was told it could kill her this time. By the time she was writing The Art of Not Falling Apart, both her sister and her father had died. She had always wanted marriage and children, but she was in her late forties and had neither.
Christina Patterson could have written a mournful, self-pitying book. Or she could have lectured her readers. Or written a sappy, “what me, worry?” sort of thing. Instead, she wrote an inspired, moving, engaging, honest, wise, and often quite witty account of her own life and the lives of many other people who had ample reason to fall apart, but didn’t.
As a journalist, Patterson knows how to talk to people. For The Art of Not Falling Apart, she sought out people who had faced devastating experiences in the hope that they would open up to her, telling their stories and explaining how they somehow managed to survive and sometimes even thrive.
She succeeded spectacularly. One after another, the people she interviewed talked to her as if they were lifelong friends (sometimes they were). Readers almost can’t help but empathize with them, love them, and remember them.
The Art of Not Falling Apart is organized into three sections: Falling, Gathering, and Fighting back. Each of the chapters on falling is devoted to a particular kind of challenge, such as catastrophic illnesses or job losses or the deaths of loved ones. The section on gathering is about summoning your resources, such as your friends and the other people who love you, pouring yourself into the pursuits that matter to you, and appreciating the joys of everyday life, however small. The fighting-back section rounds up the many ways that Patterson and others faced down the challenges of their lives.
Among the many people Patterson interviewed for the book were an editor of a national newspaper who was so devastated when he lost his job that for a while, he didn’t tell his wife or kids and just faked going to work each day; a couple who had a son who drowned at age three and another son who was killed in a car crash; and a man who broke his back three times, had a stroke, and developed epilepsy – but still prepares the food for Patterson’s birthday parties nearly every year. Patterson also interviewed Frieda Hughes, whose mother, Sylvia Plath, killed herself when Frieda was not quite three years old.
As for Patterson, we learn that over the course of her life, as she is dealt one horribly cruel blow after another, she does not withdraw. Instead, she learns to live her life more expansively. For a long time, she avoided school reunions. She “didn’t want to be the one who didn’t have a partner, didn’t have children,” especially since she imagined that her classmates “had perfect lives.” Then she went to a reunion and discovered how far from ideal their lives really were. Some who were parents, for example, had children who were anorexic or had severe anxiety, or who had soul-crushing jobs, or who were jailed.
Patterson used to feel shame about being single. She came to realize that she actually liked being on her own and decided to live her single life “magnificently.” That included going to parties on her own, traveling on her own, throwing annual birthday bashes, and, most impressively, buying a little place of her own — a second home — in Tuscany. She used to think that her friends in romantic relationships were the grown-ups and she was the child. She doesn’t think that anymore.
In the midst of such a terrific book, I was disappointed to find Patterson giving credence to the same old singles-bashing myths that have been taken down with data. For example, she claims that “all the research” shows that marriage is “better for your health.” The best studies defy that conclusion. She also claims, quoting a professor, that marriage makes people happy. Again, it doesn’t.
Worse was what she said about single-parent families, beginning with a string of exaggerated claims about how poorly the children of single parents are doing, and including this dismissive and unfair knock on single parents: “… many people seem to think they have a right to weave in and out of relationships as they want. Their children just need to travel light and come along for the ride.” Bafflingly, she said that after writing an entire chapter on affairs — many of them conducted by people who were married with children. It is also odd that she could make such a generalization when, in the same book, she speaks respectfully and even lovingly about specific single parents she knows.
Roll your eyes when you get to those parts. They don’t last long. Settle in and savor all the other pages of the book. It is amazing how a book on life’s devastations can leave you feeling so good.
The Art of Not Falling Apart
Atlantic Books, May 2018
Paperback, 352 pages