Ann Patchett is one of my favourite authors but this one was a little disappointing. I loved the writing, Patchet is a master at non-cliché insights, but the crazy blended family was a bit hard to keep track of and I didn’t connect with the characters as much as usual with a Patchett novel. The novel was enjoyable enough, it just didn’t grab my attention as well as Bel Canto or State of Wonder did. It did have one of the best opening lines of a book ever…”“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” I read an interview with Patchett about this book and she gave one of the best definitions of fiction I’ve ever heard: “None of it happened, and all of it’s true.” From the same interview, she said that her father was dying and actually passed away while she was writing this novel, and as I reflect on that, the parts in the story when Franny’s father was dying were the most poignant and most beautifully written–now that makes sense.
“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.”
When a friend and fellow avid reader (thanks Cheryl!) told me she had loved this collection by one of my favourite authors, I bought it immediately, but it has taken me some time to finish because I read selections over time. I enjoy using short stories and essays as a palate cleanser between novels.
Patchett started her career writing articles for magazines which eventually saved her from waitressing. She had to really hone her craft because frankly, if you can’t write well when it is your bread and butter, you won’t have food on your table. She stored these early pieces in a tupperware bin, and never wanted to see them again. But that bin was discovered by a friend who suggested it had potential as a book. The result is a brilliant memoir of deeply personal yet unsentimental essays sparkling with Patchett’s warm and incisive storytelling.
This is not just about marriage, there are many topics in it ranging from taking a gruelling admissions test for the LAPD to why she hates Christmas but loves dogs and children (but has never had any kids of her own). I appreciate her candor about the rocky road of divorce that she had to navigate and an interesting journey that eventually led to a happy marriage. Her early essays contain a lot of good and practical advice for prospective writers. There is a story that many will resonate with about caring for her aging grandmother, and a heartfelt tribute to a little white dog who was with her for 16 years. This tribute rivalled my own tribute to a little white dog, however mine never appeared in Vogue magazine! She is passionate about independent bookstores and started her own in Nashville, against all odds. If you are ever in Nashville, make Parnassus Books a stop on the tour. You might just run into the author and meet her dachshund!
If you are new to Patchett, her novels are well worth reading. Award winning Bel Canto is an exquisite novel about a hostage taking in an opera house. Also riveting is State of Wonder which has the best snake story ever.
Marina is a pharmaceutical researcher who goes to the Amazon to investigate the death of her colleague. The book begins with many questions that keep you turning pages. Who is this Dr. Swenson and what is the research that she is doing deep in the Amazon? Why is Vogel willing to pay so much to keep her out there and why is everyone so afraid of her? With more questions than answers, and against her better judgement, Marina embarks on a journey that will change lives forever.
Before you read ‘State of Wonder’, I recommend listening to an interview she has with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. The author, who is an amazing speaker and very funny, reads a section that is guaranteed to whet your appetite for the book. Click on the website below and scroll down to find either the short version (20 min) on the June 20 show, or else the full conversation below it. You’ll catch all the funny bits in the short version, but not the full reading of the snake story which comes at the beginning of the long interview.
The Next Chapter
Ann Patchett has done it again! Just as compelling as her award winning ‘Bel Canto’, she has created an exotic story that you will not soon forget!
Side Note: Did you ever wonder why the online bookstore is called Amazon? Too bad, no snake story here, but there are actually two reasons. It was first called ‘cadabra.com’ but the founder thought that sounded too much like “cadaver”. Also, at that time on the internet when people looked to Yahoo for listings, Amazon would put them at the top of the alphabetical list!