Tag Archives: bel canto

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth (out 9/13) is smaller and quieter than some of her previous powerhouse novels, like Bel Canto and State of Wonder. It isn’t as meticulously researched or detailed as those other works, and it covers less ground. But it packs an emotional punch nonetheless.

163560Commonwealth is about the dissolution of two marriages – Fix and Beverly’s (2 kids) and Teresa and Bert’s (4 kids) – after Beverly and Bert meet by chance at Fix and Beverly’s youngest daughter’s christening party in Los Angeles. Bert falls instantly for Beverly, and though it doesn’t happen overnight, she eventually leaves Fix and moves with Bert and her two daughters to Virginia.

This move has deep repercussions for everyone involved, of course: Bert and Beverly, their exes, and their six children, who spend summers together in Virginia when Teresa’s kids go to visit Bert. Despite their anger at their parents, the six children coalesce into a loose band – kind of like camp bunkmates – conspiring and plotting to get what they want. Commonwealth follows the group of siblings/stepsiblings over half a century, checking in with different ones over the years and jumping back and forth between past and present to tease out their relationships with each other and with all four parents. The book is really more of a collection of detailed vignettes than a coherent, linear story. Characters get closeups for a chapter or two, and then they fade into the background of another character’s story.

There are some secrets that the six share, including the circumstances around one of their deaths (sorry, a little spoiler there!). And when these secrets eventually come out, they are forced to reevaluate their relationships both as kids and as adults.

Patchett tells the story of Commonwealth at a bit of an emotional distance. Yet its impact is an emotional one. I grew to care about the characters, and I felt that I understood them deeply by the end. Patchett is such an efficient, effective writer that a chapter or two is enough to really convey the core of the characters.

There was one passage I especially liked at the end of the book, where Franny (Beverly’s younger daughter) thinks back over all of the events that took place to bring her and her siblings to where they were in life. Chance meetings, adolescent rebellions, freak accidents, waiting too long to see a doctor… each of these events had serious implications for many people’s lives. How would their lives have been different if these events hadn’t happened, or happened in a different way? Would they have wanted things to be different?

Bel Canto remains one of my favorite books of all time, and in some ways it’s surprising that these two books were written by the same person. Commonwealth has such a different tempo and scope. But I enjoyed Commonwealth quite a bit, and recommend it to fans of Patchett or domestic fiction. You won’t be disappointed.

Q&A With Ann Patchett, “THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE”

Last week, Ann Patchett came to my local indie, Politics & Prose, for a reading and Q&A around her new collection of essays, This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. Patchett’s talk was smart, irreverent, and very entertaining. From what I learned of Patchett by reading Truth and Beauty, I was expecting someone shy and retiring. Not so – she’s feisty and funny and confident.

Here is a writeup of the talk and the questions from the audience.

AP: Here is how This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage came about. In my house in Nashville, I had bins full of hard copies of essays I have written over the years for various publications. A young woman that I had worked with before [and who now lives in Nashville and is the head of events and marketing at Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus Books] decided that it was time to digitize them. She scanned them all, and then decided that I should put out a book of essays. I said no, but she’s a bossy type and said yes.

I don’t read my own work. I can’t read my own books, nor do I read interviews with me. But every time something important happens to me, I write about it, and then I put the article in the bin. It took me a long time to read through this collection of essays, and when I did, I hated it. I took out everything that was bad, and then thought about what I wanted to include. So even though I thought I couldn’t do it, I worked on the book. I had published articles in such random places that I figured no one could see all of them, and now here they were in one place. Put together, it all seemed embarrassing, exposed.

What changed everything for me was opening Parnassus Books. I went from being an indoor, private, controlled person to an outdoor person. All of a sudden, I was doing a lot of interviews and speeches about the importance of independent bookstores. I was reluctant to open the bookstore, but now I know that it has been good for me. I have a lot of friends at the store; I see a lot of authors there on book tours; my dog hangs out there; and I get to force people to buy the books I love. I’ve been doing that to friends for a long time, and now I am doing that to strangers. People are scared of me, so they buy what I tell them to buy. I take books out of their hands and say, “Can we talk about this?” I have become a spokesperson for independent bookstores. The lowest price may not necessarily be the best value.

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage should read like a novel – it is about all the things I am married to: my dog, my store, my husband, writing.

Q: Why Nashville?

AP: I am from there!

Q: How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

AP: It was easy with this book of essays, which I could start and stop. There is a novel I want to write when I get home. But the reality is that everything changes – my life has changed, and this is where I am now.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

AP: Before memory – age 4 or 5. There is a long essay in this book, “The Getaway Car”, which contains all of my advice about being a writer. Whenever someone is referred to me for advice about writing, I tell them to read that essay. It’s all in there. It’s the smartest thing I have ever written, because no one comes back with questions. It’s the “anchor store” of my essay collection.

Q: Was Truth And Beauty the hardest book you’ve written? Did you decide not to write any more non-fiction after that?

AP: It was actually the easiest book to write. What was hard was that the book caused a lot of hurt feelings and I got a lot of flack for it. There are friends of Lucy [Grealy’s] who are not in the book. I have had to overcome and forget.

Q: How did your Catholic background affect you?

AP: It affects everything. I follow a nice brand of Catholicism. I disagree with pretty much everything the Catholic Church stands for, but it is still my religion. It is all about taking responsibility.

Q: You have said that writing a book is like pinning down a butterfly.

AP: Yes. When I have an idea for a book in my mind, it is the most beautiful, perfect novel in the history of the world. When it’s completely in my imagination, it is full of movement, color, and dimension. As soon as I write it, it becomes flat. Writing is “a death of dreams”.

Q: Bel Canto is one of my favorite books. How did it come about?

A: Like most of my books, Bel Canto is about a group of strangers thrown into confinement. I write about this theme over and over. This was my fourth book. It came out in May 2001, and after September 2001, people were very interested in terrorism. A lot of people thought I set out to write a book about terrorism – not true. Like The Kite Runner, the stars were aligned.

Q: Which books are you recommending in your store?

A: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra,  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The All of It by Jeannette Haien.  A book of essays that is better than mine is A Day at the Beach by Geoffrey Wolf. Books are like lemmings – they are always being pushed off the shelf by other books. I try to save the ones that I love.

STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

Patchett One of the books getting a lot of acclaim this summer – and there are many – is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I was a huge fan of Bel Canto - it is one of my top 5 favorite books – but I was disappointed with Patchett's later novel Run, which I reviewed here. Given the amazing reviews of State of Wonder, though, I jumped at the chance to read it.

When State of Wonder opens, Marina Singh, a 42 year-old pharmacologist for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, learns from her boss, the head of the company, that Anders, her co-worker and officemate, has died in the Amazon. Anders had been sent by the company months earlier to check on the progress of a fertility drug under development in the Amazon by Marina's former mentor, Dr. Swensen, an ob/gyn who has left her practice to research a tribe in the Amazon in which the native women give birth into their 70s.

Anders' widow begs Marina to follow Anders' path in the Amazon and find her former mentor, in order to learn more about how Anders died. Meanwhile, her boss begins to pressure her to go as well, so that she can finish the investigation that Anders started on the trip.

Some have compared State of Wonder to Heart of Darkness. Marina's trip to the Amazon is one in which she must confront many of her fears, from the physical (snakes, natives, malaria) to the emotional, as Swenson still deeply affects Marina and her self-confidence. Patchett's writing is beautiful, as always, and she expertly creates narrative tension that is almost unbearable at times. Her teasing of information at key junctures through the story is masterful, especially in retrospect.  There are a few times that the story seemed to lag a bit, but looking back now that I have finished, I realize that those sections were necessary to the overall framework of the book.

I've been a bit vague in my description of the plot of State of Wonder because I don't want to give anything away. What I enjoyed most about the book were the moral questions Patchett raised in the book, about fertility, parenthood, and responsibility for actions that affect individuals and society.

I read and listened to State of Wonder, whose audio version is narrated by actress Hope Davis. She is an excellent narrator. She conveys a range of voices perfectly – from Marina's terror brought on by drug-induced nightmares to the infallible tone of Dr. Swenson.

Overall, a very good read. Not as good as Bel Canto, but that's a nearly impossible standard to meet. Thank you to Harper for the review copy.