Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Possibly a tiny bit spoiler-y ahead… just the next few lines, before the first quote.

Chekhov’s gun! Chekhov’s gun!! Seriously. Checkhov’s. Gun. And I almost fell for it, but just kept questioning the device too much to be fully blindsided by the inevitable twist. She’s clever, that Ann Patchett!

But she is up to something far more subtle, startling and painful than that. There is nothing inevitable or fated here, unless it is that actions have consequences, most of which are unintended. A person might seem “unbearable”, but then the narrating mind suggests, “maybe that’s the real problem”, that a person who seems unbearable may rather be “emblematic of what can never be overcome”. When the whole tragic power of her story hits the reader, about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is physically breathtaking. Patchett sucker-punches you, but leaves you feeling you had it coming – whether for underestimating her, or her characters, or humanity, is hard to say.*

Okay. Now that that is out of my system…

About the book (jacket description, from the publisher):

y648The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. 

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

160906_boork_ann-patchett-crop-promo-xlarge2When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I love Ann Patchett. So much. I tend to go into her books hoping I will love them, but I do try to keep my expectations in check, and approach each book freshly and with an open mind. of course, as a patchett fan, it was near-impossible to not be excited about this new novel. heck, it’s been one of my most anticipated reads for 2016. And my curiosity (or anticipation) was heightened further through interviews AP has given, noting this is her first autobiographical novel. That did add an interesting layer to the reading, along with the whole meta thing going on — the novel features a novelist who has written a new work of “fiction”, based on the life of the main characters of AP’s book. His novel is also called Commonwealth. Are you with me still? Excellent! This all worked wonderfully for me because I am basically a sucker for any works of fiction which feature writers and writing. (I’m not predisposed to automatically liking them all, but i am predisposed being intrigued by these kinds of books and throwing them onto Mt. TBR.)

What I find Patchett does exceptionally well are the nuances and dynamics of family (She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she left her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.), and the excavation of the idea of responsibility. (Actions have consequences.) She’s an insightful writer. she’s also very funny, albeit sometimes it’s a dark-funny (The priest, whose mind was wandering like the Jews in the desert… or …people moved to Brooklyn to fall in love and write novels and have children, not to get old, and she couldn’t go to Holly, though she imagined dying in the Zen centre might come with spiritual advantages.), which I can fully appreciate. And when themes can get heavy or sad, those moments of levity are terrifically welcome moments. I hugely respect how Patchett creates complicated, messy characters. I feel as though she is writing openly and realistically when she creates characters who could be hard to embrace by some readers, but I also feel she has tremendous empathy for those she is creating.

My only real criticism of the novel is that I would have loved a bit more depth/story from each of the members of the Keating-Cousins families. Jeannette, for example, who completely intrigued me. And Albie. Oh, Albie. But, really, apart from Franny who functions as the novel’s centre and presented as a more complete character (save for one thing that was really left dangling), I would have been down for so much more on this whole family. But — that is just my very minor quibble. I was so engaged with the book, and fairly tore through it as I had a hard time putting it down. So, I hope you will read this book, and that you will let me know what you think when you do. I believe this will be a book I recommend to many people.

* — excerpted from Sarah Churchwell‘s uber-gushy (in the best way) review in The Guardian.


Question:

I mentioned that Commonwealth will be a novel I recommend to many people.  I would love to know if you have particular books that serve as go-to recommendations for you – books you never hesitate to recommend, no matter the reader?

Here are 10 books I love to suggest, and feel work for any type of reader:

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Book Launch – “Finding the Words” Edited by Jared Bland

On the 17th of February, Walrus Magazine hosted the launch of this wonderful new Canadian book, Finding the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile and breaking the Rules. Bland works at the magazine, as an editor, and was also the editor responsible for pulling this new anthology together.

There was a real hodge-podge of Canadian literati on-hand for the launch, which was held at Duggan’s Brewery. Being newly returned to the city, I haven’t yet met all of the great writers, bloggers and journalists in the Toronto market, so hitting these events solo is a bit daunting. I really should not have worried, though, as writer Guy Gavriel Kay introduced himself to me, thinking I looked familiar. We established very quickly that we had not previously met, but then went on to have an extremely in-depth conversation about the role of the internet in the lives of today’s authors, while also discussing The New Yorker’s David Denby. During our conversation, Kay mentioned he was waiting on his friend “Martin” to arrive. Well, “Martin” turned out to be none other that the Globe and Mail‘s Books Editor, Martin Levin. (I was sort of dying inside over my profound good luck in meeting both gentlemen! With hope, this was undetectable to my good-natured raconteurs.)

My only disappointment of the evening was the lack of a reading from the book – maybe this is standard operating procedure when it comes to anthologies?? I somehow doubt it, though. There are so many wonderful essays contained within the volume that to have a portion of one essay brought to life through wonderful oration would have been a great treat. Bland conceived the idea for this book as a look at the importance of language to writers. He brain-stormed some really crazy ideas with Ellen Seligman, a publisher (fiction) at McClelland and Stewart, as well as the President of PEN Canada.
Bland knew he wanted to keep the subject for the anthology broad in subject to allow participating authors some leeway with their essays. That the book would be anchored by this idea of the importance of language was always prominent though. “Language exists for us as something sublime as well as something incredibly banal.” writes Bland, in the introduction of the book Finding the Words. He goes on to write that this idea is “more complicated still for writers who are, after all, the artists whose raw material is most omnipresent in their lives.” Language, Bland concludes, “is an extremely rich subject for an anthology”.

Eventually (as you will note from the subtitle of the book), the topics of: inspiration; desire; war; celebrity; exile and breaking the rules were decided upon for the essay topics that would be solicited from novelists, journalists, songwriters, memoirists, philosophers and essayists. If you have a favourite Canadian wordsmith, they very likely have an essay in Finding the Words. This is a book that offers so much insight, grit and life within its pages. And, as an impressive aside, I would be remiss if I did not mention that proceeds from this volume of work will go to PEN Canada in support of its vital work in defense of freedom of expression on behalf of writers around tho world who have been silenced. A very noble cause and a very worthwhile project from Jared Bland.

(Apologies for my less than regular posting. I have been dealing with an illness, so have had some challenges keeping to a regular schedule.)