Tag Archives: Ann Patchett

Book Review: Commonwealth

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 22 September 2016.

COMMONWEALTH: A Novel, Ann Patchett, Harper, 336 pp.

In her fiction, Ann Patchett’s typical launch point is to take an odd collection of people, throw them together in unfamiliar territory, and see what happens. Readers of her autobiographical essays may understand the origin of that impulse given the circumstances of her early years, when she found herself thrown into just such a situation with the unexpected arrival of four stepsiblings, a step-parent, and a new home on the other side of the country.

On diving into Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, readers familiar with her backstory may feel a frisson of having been let in on a secret: This book is grounded in autobiography. Not knowing that will in no way diminish its joys, but understanding the parallels to Patchett’s own story lends an additional dimension, a layering of real and imagined that adds weight and depth to an already strong and lovely story.

The book starts with a significant understatement: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Bert Cousins of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office crashes the party that cop Fix Keating and his beautiful wife, Beverly, are throwing to celebrate the baptism of their younger daughter, Franny. Bert, who uses the party to escape a house containing his wife, Teresa, and their 3.5 children, decides in the moment he sees her that Beverly will be his. A kiss given and returned in the midst of the celebration changes all parties’ lives irrevocably.

(As an aside, the first chapter of Commonwealth should be required reading for writers who want to understand how to set up an entire novel in just a few pages.)

Franny, though not a writer, is Patchett’s alter ego: second daughter to a cop and his beautiful wife, dutiful Catholic schoolgirl, and daddy’s girl, who one day finds herself swept across the country with her sister, mother, and new stepfather, and possessed of a troop of stepsiblings who move in for three months every summer.

The experience is painful and bewildering for all the children. They are left to their own devices to wrestle through a situation thrust upon them by self-absorbed adults who are wholly unequal to dealing with the chaos they’ve created. We’ve already observed Bert’s avoidance-based approach to fatherhood. Beverly’s combined unwillingness and inability to rise to the occasion is a disappointment to everyone. The wronged parties left back in L.A., Teresa and Fix, are rendered impotent by distance and their own bewilderment.

Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie. Caroline, Franny. Kids wise enough not to hate each other, but still kids — which means partially socialized, lacking impulse control, and fuzzy on concepts of cause and effect — they are in no way ready to look out for their own or each other’s preservation. When tragedy finally strikes, what’s most amazing is that it doesn’t happen sooner.

Years on, a twentysomething Franny, whose future has been mapped out by everyone except her, meets Leo Posen, a washed-up alcoholic author whose transcendent works of fiction are behind him. Because he listens to her — truly listens in a way that no one else ever has — Franny tells him the full story of her family. After changing a few minor details, Posen appropriates it as his own and sells it as fiction, a novel called Commonwealth, which reanimates his mordant career.

Franny understands how she’s betrayed her siblings. “[S]he knew exactly what it was she’d done, how serious and wrong it was to have given away what didn’t belong to her.” Here’s where that meta-level kicks in: Knowing some of Patchett’s own history makes a reader realize that there’s another dimension to consider.

If the question is, “How far from truth must a writer go to get to fiction?” or “Whose story is it to tell?” one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness, for writing Commonwealth.

Patchett takes an oblique approach to telling the story, starting from the almost-beginning and moving immediately to the almost-ending, and then circling in tighter, drawing ever closer to its heart. Her sharply observed narrative makes the novel laugh-out-loud funny at the same time that it is heartbreaking, maddening, and irresistible.

There is a decidedly different tone and feel to this novel compared to her earlier ones. Patchett is typically pretty tough on her characters; she does not coddle them, much like a grammar-school nun who won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t want to hear a lot of whining. Here, Patchett is much more tender, as one might expect under the circumstances. These are, after all — after everything — people she loves dearly, and she has shown us why.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on 9/20/2016.

On a recent trip to Florida, my husband, some friends, and I took a short boat ride out to an uninhabited barrier island. We hiked out to the beach, and they pulled up a seat while I continued on to hunt shells. I was perhaps a quarter mile away when I decided to take a quick dip to cool off. As I turned to go back to shore, a searing pain burned through my foot. I stumbled out of the water, fell onto the sand, and watched as blood pumped with every heartbeat from the top of my foot. The pain threatened to cause a blackout.

Here are the things that went through my mind as I sat there:screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-02-45-pm

  • I can’t put any weight on my foot.
  • I have no way to stop the bleeding.
  • I am completely alone on this beach.
  • I wonder how I can use this in a story.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a perfect example of writer’s brain. For all I knew, I was in the midst of a life-threatening situation with no obvious resolution, but that was no reason to delay imagining the fictional possibilities. I could immediately envision all the ways this could segue into great literature:

Thriller: Suddenly, a diver in black emerges from the ocean, brandishing his spear gun as two SUVs careen over the dunes to converge on our heroine, who produces a set of throwing stars to take out the diver and the armed thugs emerging from the SUVs.

Fantasy: Suddenly, Neptune arises from the waves, wielding his trident and riding on the back of a giant seahorse. He nods to our heroine. “Come. You are the Chosen One.”

Horror: Suddenly, razor-like spines erupt from the puncture wound as hard scales begin to form around it, radiating out to envelop our heroine’s foot, her leg, as she watches, transfixed. The transformation has begun.

Romance: Suddenly, a tall, broad-shouldered young man appears, as though from nowhere, his biceps flexing and hypnotic eyes narrowing in concern as he kneels and tenderly lifts our heroine’s foot to examine the wound. “You’re safe now. I’m a world-renown orthopedic surgeon, recently widowed—but not so recently that I can’t consider dating again, as long as it’s the right woman.”

Okay, so first drafts are rarely brilliant, but you get the idea.

Every life experience, whether it’s yours or theirs, is fair game for a writer. A favorite writer T-shirt warns, “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.” A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she was thrilled to finally have a working washing machine again, but that we should look forward to reading her Tales from the Laundromat. Ditto for some painfully interesting online dating stories. No experience ever goes to waste when you’re a writer. There is literary gold wherever you turn.

It’s one thing, though, to use a single incident as a germ of an idea or a plot point for a story, especially when it’s not particularly personal. (The fact that I was the one bleeding into the sand was not a critical story element; it could have been anybody. Unfortunately, it was not.) What happens, though, when a writer decides to mine that literary gold from someone else’s personal experience? Even in memoir, the “story” does not belong solely to the writer; it inevitably involves other people’s stories, too. So the question becomes, “Whose story is it to tell?” As someone who has plumbed her own ancestral (and more recent family) stories as a basis for fiction, I’ve wrestled with this question extensively.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-04-33-pmTwo book reviews I recently wrote for the Washington Independent Review of Books got me thinking more about this. Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is author Angela Palm’s debut. It may seem odd for a relatively young writer to start off with a memoir, but she uses it to work through a set of issues that she’s carried around for a long time. I loved the fact that, for the most part, her story read like a novel; it felt like a first-person fictional narrative, without the self-absorption of many memoirs. While the story was deeply personal, it also opened up at least two other people’s deeply personal stories. In her case, she had their full support and permission, but this is an ethical issue that any writer should consider carefully.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-03-21-pmThe second book, Commonwealth, is the latest novel from one of my all-time favorite authors, Ann Patchett. (For thoughts on the joys and sorrows of getting to review favorite authors, see my previous posting in LLNB. At least I’m two for three in the “joy” column now.) This novel has a distinctly different feel and tone to it than her earlier novels, in which she’s pretty unsentimental with her characters. The difference here is that this story is extensively autobiographical—though a reader unfamiliar with Patchett’s non-fiction might not know that—and considers the question of “whose story is it to tell?” head on. And on the heels of Riverine, the memoir that reads like a novel, I started to wonder, “How far from truth do you have to stray in order to consider something fiction?” More headache-inducing is the fact that Commonwealth describes a writer appropriating two entire families’ intertwined and painful life stories and passing it off as fiction, in a book called Commonwealth. It’s seriously meta, if you know the backstory. I loved it. As I noted in my review, “one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness” for writing this book.

We can be grateful that Palm and Patchett decided these were their stories to tell; both are beautifully done, and I highly recommend them.

Postscript: In case you’re interested, I didn’t bleed out on the beach. It took a chain of about twenty Good Samaritans handing me off from one to another (Wave Runner to boat to golf cart to ambulance) to get me to a hospital and figure out how to reunite me with my husband and friends. True story: the guy who put me on his Wave Runner was named Gary Cooper. Who can make this stuff up?

The injury: two major puncture wounds that are still healing more than a month later. The presumed culprit: a stingray. But the wound in the first picture I took looks exactly like a classic vampire bite. Oh, the possibilities . . .

When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.

At the Bird Feeder on a Snowy Day

It’s been a great bird-watching winter so far. New Year’s Day was particularly auspicious, with not one but two backyard firsts. One, I saw an Eastern bluebird in my yard for the first time in the fifteen years we’ve lived here. Bluebirds like to hang out where the edge of a wood meets a meadow, and, while we have the woods, we don’t have the meadow. But there he was at the feeder, and he has remained a regular visitor ever since. I’m planning to put up a nesting box in case he’d like to introduce his squeeze to the neighborhood and settle in to start his own little flock.

The other first was that we had four Northern yellow-shafted flickers around the feeder at the same time. Four! What could it portend? Growing up in my family, we used to say, “Never follow a flicker. It will bring you bad luck.” Not because it was verifiably true, but it sounded intriguing. Of the four in my yard, it was a large male that came to the feeder, and he actively chased off what I took to be a younger male in the group every time Junior tried to come to the feeder. And yet that same beefy male waited and shuffled his feet deferentially as he let a starling—a starling!—bogart the suet. “Kick him out!” I kept insisting from the other side of the window, like an appalled parent on the sideline of a soccer game. “Show him who’s boss!”

There is no convenient place to sit and watch my backyard, an unkempt spot ringed by woods and undergrowth, and that’s a good thing. As it is, I spend far too much time allowing myself to be distracted from the painful slog of writing, hopping up from my desk each time outside activity catches my eye, or I hear a loud or distinctive call. There’s so much going on:

  • The goldfinches with their sharp pecking order spend so much energy policing the area and chasing underlings away that it seems, from a Darwinian perspective, like a counterproductive survival strategy.
  • All in one tree at the same time, a single individual from ten different species: downy woodpecker, titmouse, house finch, goldfinch, chickadee, robin, sparrow, nuthatch, cardinal, wren.
  • How is it that the wrens have such a huge imposing voice? How is it possible to fit that kind of lung capacity and vocal power into such a tiny package?
  • The big-chested robins that show up this time of year in large gangs are eerily silent, as fifty at a time dig through the leaf litter and gouge into the earth looking for a meal. These are the non-migratory robins, and they have no song. Like tiny pillagers, they systematically ransack the yard, leaving behind countless chunky piles of staining purple poop.

Rainy days are good at the bird feeder, but it is at its busiest on snowy days. Normally, there are long stretches at the feeder with virtually no activity, but in the snow the action never stops. These are bad writing days. Certainly there are far worse ways to waste time than watching birds (stalking Facebook to see if anyone else has liked my page certainly comes to mind), and sometimes I even attempt to excuse this behavior by insisting to myself that I’m sharpening my observation skills. But in this new year, my objective is to develop discipline.

 Boy, you can sure hear those blue jays. Loud bullies to other species, blue jays have an admirably well-developed sense of community. I once unwittingly disturbed a blue jay’s nest: the cry went up, and within less than a minute I was surrounded and actually frightened by what must have been every blue jay within a ten-mile radius. The unnerving ruckus was so loud that neighbors came out to see what was going on.

I was talking about discipline; right. In “The Getaway Car”, Ann Patchett’s wonderful “this is how I did it” essay of advice to aspiring writers, she asserts that there is no such thing as writer’s block, merely procrastination, and more generally a simple lack of discipline. I agree with her. As Patchett says, “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” She recommends developing the discipline to sit at a desk for a set period of time every day, during which you are allowed to do absolutely nothing—“no phone, no Internet, no books”—unless it is writing.

What about looking out the window at the birds?

There goes the resident bald eagle cruising past, heading upriver. One rainy winter day he hung out on a bare branch in the backyard for hours, hunched and looking completely miserable. I wonder whether he was procrastinating, too.

It took me five years almost to the day from the time I wrote the first words of my first novel until I wrote the last. That doesn’t count the time between deciding to write it and starting to write it, or the time after it was “finished” until it could actually be considered “done”. I am determined to shave at least a few years off this process for Book #2.

I would bet that the majority of writers spend many hours avoiding writing. (Dorothy Parker, anyone? “I hate writing. I love having written.”) Patchett describes doing everything on her task list, down to the most trivial or normally repellent, rather than hunkering down to write. National Novel Writing Month, affectionately shortened to NaNoWriMo, was founded on the premise that the most important thing to do is just write. It’s an extraordinarily simple concept: Bang out 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. No editing. No navel-gazing. Write. Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page. The collective resources of the NaNoWriMo movement are there to offer encouragement, a sense of shared purpose, a word-count repository, and the virtual camaraderie of knowing you aren’t alone in your slog.

Did I write 50,000 words? Are you kidding? NaNoWriMo is held in November! Can you imagine? It was my turn to host Thanksgiving this year! What were they thinking? (Excuses for not writing are invariably whiny and self-serving.) I don’t have time to write a novel in November! Why didn’t the organizers think to put it in a less-busy month, like February or March?

We’ll see the ospreys again in mid-March, always the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Their surprisingly high-pitched shrieks call me outside to scan the sky for the first sighting. They are my harbingers of spring. Just a little later, we’ll start to see the great blue herons shake off the winter and start their regular, slow pterodactyl cruises up and down the river, barking their hoarse, gravel-throated calls to each other as they pass.

Oh, it’s a painful irony that it takes discipline to develop discipline. But I’m hopeful. After all, here we are, heading into the teeth of February, and I’m still striving to remain seated, focused—thinking of—doing nothing but—writing. Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.

Wait, was that a pileated woodpecker I just heard?