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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Bookish News

Book News

  • The question, “Is the Internet killing culture?” has been around since the Internet’s invention. However, the anxieties about the creative class and the decline of culture have been around for far longer. At Slate, Evan Kindley writes about Scott Timberg’s book Culture Crash, and how there is always something killing culture.
  • Paperbacks give publishers a second chance to find an eye-catching cover design, but the results are often confounding. “After spending so much time, effort and money on getting the dust jacket just right, most publishers go back to the drawing board to design the paperback version. That always seems to me like a waste of hard-won brand awareness, but I’m told most books don’t sell well enough to establish any brand awareness.”
  • It’s Friday! Do you want to waste a little bit of time on the internet? BuzzFeed Books has created a new bookish quiz, and they would like to tell you which book they think you should date. (I got Infinite Jest, which I am totally cool with!)

 

Happy reading everyone!

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Today, Kathleen Winter earned a literary trifecta, securing spots on all three major Canadian fiction prize shortlists. Winter was announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Literature this morning. Winter’s novel Annabel is also up for The Giller Prize and The Writer’s Trust Award. Winter’s book, her debut novel, is the only one contending for all three awards this year; and it is a stunningly beautiful book.

From the jacket description:

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret — the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self — a girl he thinks of as Annabel — is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.

Haunting, sweeping in scope, and stylistically reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Annabel is a compelling debut novel about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.”

Annabel offers some hard themes for readers. It is the story of an intersex child born in a remote coastal Labrador village in 1968. Primarily, I feel, Winter has written an homage to self-determination and self-preservation. An intersex child is born with atypical reproductive anatomy – both male and female anatomy are present. Advocates for intersex infants argue against surgical alterations of gentalia and reproductive organs being performed in order to accommodate societal expectations of what it means to be male or female in the world. This choice forms the centre of Winter’s novel.

Jacinta Blake gives birth, in her bathtub, at home. Her closest friend, Thomasina, is assisting with the birth. Thomasina is the first one who notices the baby has both male and female genitals. She immediately begins to refer to the child as Annabel, in tribute to her own daughter who has recently died. Jacinta’s husband, Treadway, feels strongly the child should be raised male while Jacinta (and Thomasina) feel love for the daughter, Annabel. The infant, “Wayne”, receives surgery to make his body appear more fully male. He is also started on a regiment of hormones to keep his body more male than female. All of this is kept from Wayne while he is growing up but he is always aware of not feeling whole as he is. Thomasina, however, addresses the child as Annabel, when they are together privately.

In an interview for House of Anansi Press, Kathleen Winter was asked, “What do you hope readers will take away from their experience with Wayne and his shadow-self, Annabel?”

“I’d like readers to see Wayne/Annabel the way they see themselves, and look at the “other” gender within themselves. I feel point of view is everything, in life and in literature, and I hope the book treats the points of view held by its divergent characters with equal respect. In many ways, this book is, for me, about suspending judgment. When you understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the actions cause sadness or difficulty, then I think you can redirect your energy to something more fruitful than judgment. I also hope the reader will have the kind of reading experience I think books are really about: a connection with the characters and a suspension of the loneliness of being human. I hope this story, like all good stories, might give the reader a kind of relief and a joy.”

Winter set a large task for herself with Annabel. I feel she achieved perhaps more than she could have hoped for. Winter has created a wonderfully memorable story and Annabel (the character) is such a beautiful portrait of what it means to be human. Through Winter’s ability the reader feels the sadness, the loneliness but also the strength and the hope.

Upcoming Reviews

My life is getting in the way of my life, recently. For that reason my reviews are a wee bit tardy. Coming up, very soon, I will have new reviews for Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Annabel by Kathleen Winter and I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson.

Presently, I am reading the novel Snow, by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. This is a novel that requires the full attention of the reader. Pamuk uses setting and environment well. In fact, they are like two additional characters in the story. This is my first time reading Pamuk and I know already (I am only about one-third of the way into Snow) I will be seeking out more of his novels.

Let me know what you have been reading and if you have discovered any literary gems. I love hearing about anything to do with reading and books.