Tag Archives: Ann Patchett

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

This is the fourth book by Ann Patchett that I have read, and I felt disappointed. Too “ordinary”. Patchett’s suburbia is a dull place. A man and woman fall in love and divorce their spouses in order to marry. He has four children, she has two. They constitute the “common wealth” of the title. All six children suffer.

I couldn’t help comparing this book with Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Each deals with children. In each case, events at a party are pivotal. Patchett describes a christening party that turns into a dark, ironic version of the Biblical story of loaves and fishes. A marriage is destroyed. Ferrante’s event is a wedding party, at which the groom betrays the bride, then rapes her.

In each tale, a child is lost. In Commonwealth the oldest of the six children dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. His confused siblings watch uncomprehendingly. Every parent’s nightmare. But the loss described in the last of the Neapolitan novels is even worse – a tiny girl disappears, from a bright street on a sunny day. She’s gone. Her death cannot even be confirmed. Foul play is suspected. Ferrante has a knack for dealing with the most harsh blows that life can inflict.

In each story, someone tells or publishes a story that “belongs” to another person, with disturbing repercussions. Elena (Ferrante gives her own name to her heroine) writes about her friend Lila’s factory employment, bringing down retribution and violence. One of the neglected daughters in Commonwealth tells her lover, a prominent author, about the tragic death of her older stepbrother. He appropriates the story but denies its origins. His book is made into a movie, causing terrible pain to the family.

In my earlier blog post about Ferrante, I described My Brilliant Friend as being worthy of the category of “literary fiction”. The rest of her quartet also meets that standard. Commonwealth, in my opinion, doesn’t make it. Too bad, because I would certainly include Patchett’s wonderful Bel Canto in that category, and I plan to continue to read her work.

The importance of “literary fiction”

Recently an article turned up (sorry, I can’t cite it) that claims reading “literary fiction” will improve your “emotional intelligence”. I’m OK with “emotional intelligence”, but what is “literary fiction”?? For starters, it’s the recognized fine literature, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen – plays and books that deal with the complexity of human emotions – texts that get better on a second or fifth reading.

Can “literary fiction” be found in recent novels? I vote “yes”. Trying to think of an example, I came up Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It’s a tale of journeys and transformation. By the end, I felt like I had traveled very far. More recently, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Mesmerizing! She creates a microcosm and populates it with people so real, so detailed, you feel you know them like best friends.

Please let me know of books YOU would put into this category!

“The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett

I hesitated to START reading this book because Patchett’s Bel Canto had me so entranced I was in danger of burning dinner. And I was right to worry – “The Magician’s Assistant” also completely held my attention. I read it in three days. Sorry, I can’t tell you how long it is. I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magician’s Assistant” has two settings, sunny Los Angeles and windswept, winter Nebraska. The protagonist, a bereaved woman in her 40s, travels to meet “relatives” by marriage whose existence had been unknown to her. Where another author might use flashbacks, Patchett uses dreams – lucid dreams of a magical quality. Not every author could make this work.

I thought this book might, like Bel Canto, end tragically, but it doesn’t. 

Patchett creates characters that surprise and interest me. The protagonist’s parents, for example, are almost too good to be true, so their daughter has to stretch to understand the dysfunctions and misfortunes of other peoples’ lives. Her ability to do so seems to be rooted in the great love she feels for her close companions.

I won’t get into plot here. Read and enjoy!