Tag Archives: Commonwealth

Commonwealth Reboot

shopping-2   I don’t like rereading books; I’d rather spend the time with a new story, but Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth was an exception.  Exploring the depths of Commonwealth’s complicated family and the catalysts changing their lives gave me a better understanding of the story’s structure with its underlying conceits, and a new respect for Ann Patchett’s writing talent.

In preparing for the book club discussion, I researched the author.  I was already familiar with her other books; this time I looked for her background as a way of connecting with her own family references in this book, and I found a few to share at the book club.  I always like book lists and authors who inspire writers, and in my meanderings I found Ann Patchett offered some new possibilities.

Because Patchett mentioned her friendship with Jacqueline Woodson, four time winner of the Newbery Award, I listened to an online podcast at the Free Library of Philadelphia with both authors discussing Patchett’s Commonwealth and Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.  The podcast is a one hour discussion with Patchett and Woodson reading from their books.  In the publisher’s excerpt, childhood memory is the common element – how the  memory of childhood events differs, according to the age of the child experiencing it.

For the New York Times “By the Book,” Patchett named Saul Bellow, the winner of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards, as one of her favorite authors, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin, award winning author and historian.  In the podcast she also offers a number of her favorite books from Charlotte’s Web to The Witches of Blackbird Pond to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, When Breath Becomes Air, The Underground Railroad, and more.  She has a monthly blog talking about her favorite books at “Ann’s Blog”

As a result of  rediscovering Ann Patchett,  I am now reading:

  • Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn
  • Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift
  • Henry James’ The Ambassadors
  • Matthew Desmond’s Evicted

Through the interviews I learned more about Patchett, the person.  She’s warm and funny and real – someone I would enjoy meeting for coffee.  Maybe I will someday, if I ever get to Tennessee.

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A Sample List from Semple

Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette and Today Will Be Different, revealed her reading habits in a Boston Globe interview on her way to the Boston Book Festival this year.  Sample tries to read three books a week –

“I can’t think of anything I am more afraid of having missed out on in life than reading important works of literature.”

Always looking for another book, I was delighted to discover her recommendations, thanks to my friend who faithfully sends me Boston Globe clippings.  I was also encouraged by Semple’s attitude on not finishing books:

“I’ve heard some people say they will give a book fifty pages.  That is too much…if a book is too obtuse on the first page I feel as if the writer doesn’t have my best interests at heart…I’m pathological about how quickly I put a book aside….”

I’ll probably stay by my rule of reading the number of pages of one hundred minus my age before giving up on a book; it gets closer to Semple’s formula every year.  Do you finish every book you start?

unknownBooks Semple is Reading Now     (of course, I immediately went to the library to find them):

  • The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

Leah inherits a red sports car from an old friend and mentor who died in a car accident.  As she journeys to San Francisco to claim the car,  Leah revisits past lives and loves.

  • Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (Nobel prize winner)

Personal accounts of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history  which contaminated three quarters of Europe.

  • Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Told from the perspective of the child in the mother’s womb, McEwan respins Shakespeare’s Hamlet, turning the tale into a modern tragedy of betrayal and murder.

  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Read my review here.

  • A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

In 1765, Sterne, facing death, travelled through France and Italy as far south as Naples, and after returning, described his travels from a sentimental point of view through the adventures of his alter ego, Rev. Mr. Yorick.  First published in 1768.

 

imagesSemple’s  Favorite Classics:

  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

51vo9iqcxjl-_ac_us174_Ann Patchett knows the power of the sudden jolt in her stories.  I remember finding it in Bel Canto and in State of Wonder, but I almost missed it in her latest novel – Commonwealth.  The story slowly unravels, as two families are torn apart by pride and lust, and then slowly reassembled through love.  Amazingly, the crises seem almost familiar, and the real secret of survival may be the illusions and perceptions the characters carry with them through years of denial.

Patchett sows the seeds in her opening gambit when beautiful Beverly, married to her policeman husband,  passionately kisses the handsome attorney, Bert Cousins, father to three small children and one on the way, at her daughter’s christening.  Was it the gin in the orange juice or deeper discontent driving their passion?  The reader doesn’t have to wait long before Patchett has the two moved to Virginia with Beverley’s two little girls, Caroline and Franny.  In the summer, Bert’s four children join in – a blended family of intolerance.

While the two lovebirds are cementing their attraction, the children suffer each new chapter of their lives, hating each other and the loss of their old lives, angry and unforgiving.  They run wild in the summer, and the older children regularly drug Albie, the youngest, with Benadryl to shut him down and keep him out of their antics. While Teresa, mother of Bert’s four hellions, is back in California working at her new job, Beverly finds herself hiding in her air-conditioned car in Virginia to escape the children.

Patchett cleverly shifts gears and creates suspense by teasing the reader with cliffhangers as she suddenly jumps from present to past and future in alternating chapters spanning fifty years.  The children speak as adults, some of whom have forged unlikely alliances.  The first indication of a change in atmosphere in the novel comes with the death of the eldest boy, Cal, with lingering repercussions for the other children, as they reveal their roles in the coverup.

But the big jolt comes later in the book, when Franny’s new love, the older Leon Posen, a famous writer who has hit writer’s block after his last big success, creates his masterpiece – titled “Commonwealth.”  Patchett is so convincing, I found myself googling Posen and looking for his book, almost missing the point of his stealing Franny’s stories about her childhood for his use.  Dysfunctional families may be fodder for a bestseller, but when Posen uses the details of Cal’s death and the children’s secret drugging of Albie, fact and fiction become alarmingly the same – exposing harmful secrets.  I wondered if Patchett was also sending a subtle message with the title – the possibility of her using stories from her own life in her fiction?

Just as the slide you went down as a child seemed so much bigger than it does to you as an adult, and just as the teacher you idolized as a child seems not as old when you are grown, the mere action of having her adult characters look back on their time together as children offers a philosophical and healing balm.  They all adjust and forgive, and they see their parents’ actions and their own frantic childhoods from a wiser perspective.

Each of us plays the cards we are dealt, and Patchett offers the consolation that however our lives evolve, we can find some way to be true to ourselves and those we love.

Commonwealth is another winner from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers.  I could not stop reading the book until I finished in the wee hours of the morning, and I may have to read it again.