Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Two paragraphs into Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I decided I had to cancel all my weekend plans. There were 255 pages in between me and the conclusion of the story, which seemed like a much more necessary journey to take than anything else I had to do those next two days.

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Of course, I didn’t cancel my plans. I’m not that crazy. But as I socialized and concertized and ate and laughed with friends, part of my mind was back with the Cousinses and the Keatings, and the great question at the heart of all my favorite books — what the heck is going to happen next?

As John Irving suggested in the novel The World According to Garp, we read because we want to answer that question. But what Irving didn’t mention in his book is that the story ought to be carried out beautifully. Because as any fiction reader can tell you, good prose makes life digestible. That’s why we read, of course. A book is the great Chipping Away, that knife’s edge that separates the gunk from the things that matter. Writers take proverbial marble of life and distill it to something that is almost truer than life . But unlike sculptors, authors chip away at the marble by “building up.” What does an author pay attention to? Who gets the spotlight, and who gets perspective? What the heck are all these slow nature descriptions there for? These are the questions you wade through on your way to the heart of the book. Life is shown through the accumulation of the right words.

ANYWAY.

I always end up philosophizing instead of writing about the book. By that long-winded paragraph I mean to say, Patchett just CHOSE THE RIGHT WORDS! And boy does she pull off a story. The story’s inciting incident happens only twenty pages in, so I won’t be spoiling too much (it’s on the jacket cover, for all you skeptics). Bert Cousins, an L.A. district attorney, shows up to police officer Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party. Amongst the crowd of cops and their wives getting slowly drunk and drunker on the gin Bert Cousins brought, Bert decides that Beverly Keating, Fix’s young wife, is the start of his future. They kiss — and so it begins. Bert’s four children and Beverly’s two children and forever orbiting one another as their families pull a switcheroo. But the kicker happens when, years later, Franny begins an affair with a famous author with a decades-long inspiration dry spell. And when he hears the crazy story of Franny’s upbringing, he has his next novel.

The novel is very ambitious in scope, spanning multiple perspectives, jumping around in time. Ann Patchett manages this by embedding news of the “big events” into the casual vignettes that make up the book. She’s juggling the entire lives of so many characters (Franny’s storyline goes from her christening party to when she’s middle-aged!) so there’s not enough room for each momentous occasion to be described in scene. Patchett masterfully ties up entire progressions in people’s lives in one sentence, and chooses to focus on smaller moments that actually define lifetimes. It reminds me a lot of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse.

This book is also so appealing because it’s about a dysfunctional family, but written by someone who clearly believes in family. Each character is redeemable. And they all love each other.

Anyway, this is the book I’m going to be urging everyone I meet to read for the next few months. Move over, Elena Ferrante (sorry!)

Read Commonwealth and then come talk to me about it!

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A June of New, Dear Friends

I graduated college in May with a diploma in English and a big gaping hole in my life. What was I to do without my friends and my classes and my little routine? Or, should I say, my little life? The day after school ended, I did the only thing I knew to do: grabbed the nearest, epically-long novel I could find and dive right in.

I chose well. I chose a book that was unpleasant and electrifying and kept me coming back for more.  Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life and its cast of vivid and true characters filled the void for a bit. It became a chore reading it, especially once I saw the book for what it was–not the story of four graduates heading out into the world, as it begins, but the psychological portrait of a person deprived from love and exposed to absurdly gruesome horrors at far too young an age.

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A good book stays with me. It blurs the lines between my life and its life. Every time I walk to work through the Garden district of Manhattan, I keep my eyes peeled for Caleb, tall, dark, and evil, whose apartment was in that area in the book.

But I finished it only a few days later. It turns out one mere novel wasn’t enough to satiate me! I needed more characters and buddies to populate my life for a bit. So, I went into an epically-long series: the mysterious and fantastic Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.

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thousands of pages of goodness

If Yanagihara’s tome is about male friendships in the modern age, Elena Ferrante’s series is about the enduring power of a female friendship in a much different time and place than my own. Elena and Lila, the two protagonists of Ferrante’s series, become friends in Naples in the 1950s. The story ends in the 2000s, after Lila disappears, and she always threatens to do. Elena defines her own identity based off of who she perceives Lila to be. Essentially, whatever Lila is (bold, dynamic, impulsive, manipulative), Elena is not. However, as we’ll see, their relationship is ever-growing and while they know each other so well, sometimes Elena is so busy projecting her insecurities onto Lila that she doesn’t see Lila for who and what she is.

Sounds pretty much like a normal relationship, right? That’s because Ferrante’s books do something extraordinary, that so many novels fail to do–and why so many novels fail. They describe reality. Ferrante’s characters make real decisions. They do not make choices that an author thinks would be convenient for a plot. Rather, as I moved along the path of Elena’s life, all of her actions fell into place. They built up and up, and her decisions impacted her personality and her personality impacted her decisions. Life!

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. Elena Ferrante

I ended June with lots of new friends–and new friendships. There’s Jude and Willem, Elena and Lila. I graduated from college with so many good friends. I’m just starting out like the characters in A Little Life. But reading these books about enduring friendships, seeing them evolve over the decades, makes me excited to see how my own friendships will change in adult life. Is there anything more elastic, forgiving, and necessary than a relationship with a true friend?