Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review of Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I somehow ended up with two copies of Ann Patchett‘s Commonwealth. I won one through Goodreads and the other just mysteriously showed up in the mail. Maybe the prize got posted twice, maybe I won a second somewhere else. I’m not actually certain. But obviously the most logical thing to do was then get the audio version from the library to listen to, which is what I did. Though to be honest, I don’t think I would have it I hadn’t also had the physical book on my shelf.

Description from Goodreads:
One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

I’ll start by saying that I don’t gravitate toward popular literary fiction of this sort. I’m a dedicated sci-fi/fantasy reader. But every now and again I dip my toe into other waters and Commonwealth seemed a fair place to do so.

It took me a long time to settle into the book. For more than half of it I was afraid it wouldn’t come together and would remain just a series of events in the lives of two random families. But with the introduction of Leo the stories finally wove together and in the end I liked it. It’s definitely one of those books that I wasn’t sure until the end though.

I didn’t like many of the characters. I hated a lot of the decisions that they made. But life is messy and people make choices that have disastrous results all the time. This book centers them and moves forward from there.

Having said that, man can Patchett turn a phrase. The book really is beautifully written. It was a pleasure to listen to and Hope Davis did an excellent job bringing it to life. I can’t say I’m running out to read the next such book. But the next time I feel up to a little literary fiction, maybe I’ll pick up Bel Canto, which has been on my shelf for ages. (I have no idea how it got there.)

Review of Loving Violet, by Steven Lewis

I won a copy of Steven LewisLoving Violet through Goodreads.

Loving Violet is a tight cinematic narrative about conflicting dimensions of love, romantic as well as familial, told against a backdrop of the pleasures and frustrations of “the writing life.” A generational sequel to Lewis’s Take This, the book follows the late Robert Tevis’s grandson Aaron through his entry into a graduate MFA writing program and the arms of the most drop-jaw gorgeous–and disarmingly untethered–girl he has ever known. From there we follow Aaron and Violet as they travel through the intoxicating, absurd, and confounding stages of erotic love, from a fictional Westchester college to a small loft in Brooklyn, the North Fork of Long Island, and, finally, with their newborn Esme, to Central America. In Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, Aaron and Esme establish an unusual extended family life with a unique group of women (his divorced mother, widowed grandmother, his late grandfather’s lover, and the grandfather’s former hippie caretaker) while Violet travels the globe as a successful writer.

I’m uncertain about how to feel about this. I found the writing quite lovely (though the editing had the occasional mishap, usually in the form of a missing word here or there), but I finished it with a vaguely disquieted feeling, like something important was missing.

I’m tempted to say it’s the point, that’s what’s missing—Why were we told Aaron’s story? What were we meant to take away from it? But I think that’s an oversimplification. No doubt there was a point, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

There’s a chance my discomfort stemmed from how self-indulgent it felt for an author to write about the life of a burgeoning author. Then to see him give the success away, almost unearned. No doubt the book’s MFA professor would have some cutting remark about my prosaic expectations as a reader; seeking some lofty (easily identified) meaning and dismissing a good story.

Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the fact that the book was full of interesting women, but focused solely on one boy/man (and occasionally his father). The women exist, not on their own, but in their relation to these men, Aaron in particular. Violet, especially, for all her foibles, seemed more a figment of Aaron’s mind than a real person. Maybe this was the problem. I didn’t understand why Aaron was so obsessed with her, other than that he fixated on her.

I said early on that I thought this book was the sort where the ending would make or break it. I won’t go so far as to say it broke the book, but it sure didn’t make it. I feel kind of like the book just fizzled out, never had accomplished that incandescence it was obviously reaching for. It wasn’t bad. It was an enjoyable story that I don’t regret reading. I just don’t think it was much more.

Review of Land Mammals and Sea Creatures, by Jen Neale

I won a copy of Land Mammals and Sea Creatures, by Jen Neale through Goodreads.

Almost immediately upon Julie Bird’s return to the small port town where she was raised, everyday life is turned upside down. Julie’s Gulf War vet father, Marty, has been on the losing side of a battle with PTSD for too long. A day of boating takes a dramatic turn when a majestic blue whale beaches itself and dies. A blond stranger sets up camp oceanside: she’s an agitator, musician-impersonator, and armchair philosopher named Jennie Lee Lewis — and Julie discovers she’s connected to her father’s mysterious trip to New Mexico 25 years earlier. As the blue whale decays on the beach, more wildlife turns up dead — apparently by suicide — echoing Marty’s deepest desire. But Julie isn’t ready for a world without her father.

Do you have a book club? Does it like to read those kind of obscure books that put metaphors and symbolism over…say, making sense and calls itself meaningful? Yea, that’s Land Mammals and Sea Creatures. I can see some literary book clubs that appreciate teasing out nuances liking this.

Me? I really just wanted to know what was happening with the animals and why no one seemed to investigate it, why JJL was so all knowing as a child and then as an adult, what was happening at the shows, and why no one ever tried get Marty into therapy if he’d been suicidal for almost 30 years. I actually really like Magical Realism, but I’m not willing to let it explain away everything. I still want answers in of some sort in the end.

I thought the writing was pretty. I love the cover. I liked some of the characters, especially Alan (the probably gay friend of Marty who’d spent Julie’s whole life stepping up to father on the side). But overall this book was a bust for me.