Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.

Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.

This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.

And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?

But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.

My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.

In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.

One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.

There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.

It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.

I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)

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Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2014 work was a difficult novel for me to get into. It is the story of a poor migrant, Lila, from the time she is stolen as a baby until she has a baby of her own. But the way author Robinson tells this woman’s story is frustrating. Even though its theme—of love and human understanding, of sacrifice and steadfastness, of moral and spiritual sanctity—is everything I could ask for.

For the story of Lila is structured like a stream of consciousness novel. That is, the narrative moves back and forth, as if in Lila’s mind. But the telling is in the third person. We see into Lila’s mind, but we are not inside Lila’s mind. But even though this approach did not appeal to me, I persevered, because of the critical reputation that all of Robinson’s novels have earned.

This is also largely a story of the underside of life as well as a story of loneliness. As a baby, Lila is stolen by Doll, a woman she remembers fondly throughout the novel. She is grateful to her because Doll saved her from a life of poverty and degradation. She also has fond memories because Doll was a good woman, and educated Lila to be one as well. Her one regret is that she does not know what happened to Doll, after the woman decided that abandoning her would be for Lila’s own good.

There is, of course, a connection between this novel and two of Robinson’s earlier novels, Gilead and Home. Gilead is about a minister, John Ames, and is comprised of a letter he is writing to his son. Home concerns Ames and his friend, a fellow minister, Robert Boughton, who also lives in Gilead. And Lila is the story of the young woman who married the elderly John Ames, and is the mother of the son the minister is writing to in the first novel.

Yes, the connection to the other novels adds depth to one’s understanding, but this work nevertheless stands on its own. It is about Lila and her troubled experience, one of suffering, abandonment, and rescue. However, these are not easy experiences to identify with. And this further hindered my entering into and identifying with this character.

Which was compounded by Lila’s mind jumping around in time. Indeed, so much so that I was confused at times if we were in the present or in the past, and, if in the past, what period in that past. For there are times in which she is in Doll’s care. There are times in which she is surviving in a whorehouse. There are times in which she is in flight, and times in which she arrives in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where she knows no one.

In Gilead where she meets the elderly John Ames. Whereupon, two events took me surprise. And, for me, lacked conviction. Not that the two marry, but that, first, she proposes to him out of thin air, and he considers it for about a page, and then accepts her suggestion. Because, apparently, he is lonely, like her, having lost his wife many decades earlier. Joan Acocella explains this further in The New Yorker. She explains that Lila proposes because she is bold and because she fears she will be abandoned again, just has she has been before. While he is both drawn to her boldness and sees, with her, an end to his own loneliness.

The second development that surprised me was Lila’s becoming pregnant. This event is important to her and is what sustains both her and the novel through its final pages. But there has been no suggestion that love has originally motivated them. It is more that marriage has been convenient for them both. There is a scene in which they are in bed together, she seeking his comfort, but it is after her pregnancy begins. It would have been helpful if this circumspect author had inserted that scene a little earlier.

However, the affection between Lila and the minister is real. We accept that they share much, even come to love one another, and we watch their devotion to their child engage them equally. Moreover, their connection, their humanity, is deepened, when they acknowledge that they do not completely understand each other. Indeed, the final pages are filled with both a human and a spiritual love, as these two sympathetic creatures share with the child the short time, given the minister’s age, they realize they will have together as a family.

Diane Johnson sums up this novel’s seriousness in The New York Times: “Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness—the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life.” These are indeed the hallmarks of Robinson’s earlier works, and are welcome here in a literary world that seldom acknowledges them.

At the end of her review, Johnson says: “Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect, and abandonment.” I would accept all but the word “compelling.” Entering into this woman’s mind and following her experiences has not for me been compelling. Is this because I am male? I prefer to think not. I prefer to think it is her life of loneliness, of sacrifice, of abandonment, of deprivation that I found so difficult to relate to.

And, of course, I recognize that many woman have faced such situations in our society. But this author did not draw me into this life, even though it offered a shared human experience that included love and sacrifice, tenderness and yearning, and a sense of our spiritual destiny.

I am now curious about Home, yes, but not enough to place it ahead of other novels I wish to read. (February, 2017)

Slowness, by Milan Kundera

This 1995 novel begins as a beautifully written, and translated, work. But it takes a long while to become a novel. We are with the narrator and his wife as they check into a chateau in the French countryside. Then he tells an anecdote about a seduction of two centuries ago taken from on an obscure novel called No Tomorrow. Which leads to ruminations that verge on being personal essays, essays that discuss the differences between the old days and modern life.

The narrator ruminates first about slowness, how it used to leave us time to experience each moment of living, and to remember it. But now all we care about is speed, on the road, at a movie, or with our lover, which leads to forgetting each experience. He also explores the idea of “the player,” those who dominate the public stage in order to attract attention. Finally, he establishes what is to be this work’s theme: seduction. And focuses on the novel No Tomorrow, in which a young 18th century chevalier is seduced by a worldly wife in order to throw her husband off the scent of her true lover.

The “essays” evolve into a narrative that brings sets of characters into competition. Pontevin, an historian, is jealous of an ambitious intellectual, Berck, seeing the latter as a dancer. Then Pontevin’s disciple Vincent, a modern man devoted to speed, is jealous of Pontevin, seeing him as a dancer. There is also an unnamed Czech scientist at a convention of entomologists who are meeting at the chateau where the others are guests—and Berck tries to advance himself by picking on this scientist. Meanwhile, we occasionally return to the narrator and his wife at the chateau. The narrator is a writer, presumably Kundera, who seems to be having writer’s block; and the reader wonders if these characters we are reading about are real or are characters in a novel the narrator is developing.

There is much potential here. The forgetful Czech scientist embarrasses himself, and a pursuing Berck embarrasses him further. But the author foregoes any intellectual seduction. He is more interested in real seduction. Berck rejects a woman who loves him, Immaculata, a television journalist. Vincent discovers a typist Julie who fascinates him and who does accept him for a night. But then complications arise. Berck does not love the woman, but her cameraman does. Except, she rejects him. Vincent tries to make love to Julie, but fails. In public. The implication being that, like Berck, like Pontevin, he is also a dancer, since he wishes to copulate in public. And like them he also fails. Suggesting that the quickie seduction of modern times is not as effective as the slowly executed seduction in No Tomorrow.

And then? In his earlier novels, Kundera relied on variations on a theme rather than on story. My sense here is that he is relying on too few themes in this château he says is filled with ghosts. The novel builds to a climactic scene at a swimming pool, with the failed copulation followed by a false attempt at suicide. It is a climactic scene reminiscent of high drama, but all is coincidental. The scenes have no link. And thus, no drama. And then the novel concludes with a scene in which a character from No Tomorrow and one from today confront one another, one happy about being seduced, one unhappy at his failure to seduce. To little effect, because their meeting is symbolic. It furthers the theme, but is not real. Angeline Goreau perhaps reflects all this when writing in The New York Times, “The speeding up of the farce at the end of this book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels.”

Kundera would undoubtedly defend himself by saying that he sees fiction differently, that he is writing about ideas, not people. He is simply identifying his ideas with people. And illustrating them with people whose activities parallel each other but do not intersect with each other. And he certainly does this. But while each couple illustrates an example of seduction, the failure to connect among these seductions dilutes the emotional impact.

Also, these casual seductions, so baldly conveyed here, do not reflect my kind of fiction. Moreover, they fail to match the complexity of Kundera’s earlier novels, as if here his imagination has failed him. One critic suggests, however, that the brevity of this novel actually reflects the novel’s theme, that modern life is one of speed and forgetting. And that the length of this novel signals the short attention span of modern readers, who demand the ability to read a book quickly. (But not, I would hope, the urge to forget it.)

For me, however, this explanation goes against the parameters of novel writing. Michiko Kakutani discusses this approach in the Times, calling the work “an extrapolation of ideas and techniques….[it] is less a traditional narrative than a musical improvisation; it’s a series of variations built around a central theme and linked together by leitmotifs.” And later: “The novella is really concerned with the storytelling process itself, with the means by which the facts of real life are turned into fiction.”

With this emphasis on process, on brevity, to illustrate his theme, however, Kundera generates the very showmanship he decries. For when you seek effect, rather then reader involvement, you have become a true dancer. He even has Vincent speeding away on a motorcycle at the end, trying to forget. But has Kundera forgotten that you do not sacrifice real people and real motivation to make your point? Literature requires you to integrate your ideas and your people. In the end, his imagination has focused on his philosophical theme, at the expense of his fictional characters.

Actually, some critics see the value of this novel to be in its philosophical depth, in its being built around the concepts of slowness and remembering in the past world and speed and forgetting in the modern world. But for me, this is not the purpose of literature: to illustrate philosophy. The purpose is to illustrate the emotions, the desires, the frustrations, the thinking of individual characters in a tangible world.

In sum, I was disappointed in this novel, in part because I did not understand what Kundera was trying to do. And I thank the reviewers for explaining that. But I would also note that the reviewers I cite do not believe he pulled off his blend of theme and story. Nor do I. (January, 2017)