Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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Ann Patchett's Genuine Dialogue and Unusual Plots
Thursday, April 26, 2018 -- I have come to appreciate the novels that Ann Patchett turns out with surprising regularly.
I've enjoyed 2001's Bel Canto, 2007's Run and 2011's State of Wonder. The works are all relaxed, yet fascinating and imaginative forays into fictional worlds. Patchett's great dialogue and unusual plots provide satisfaction to the reader without always filling in all the plot gaps. I am particularly impressed by her unusual ear for how people speak. The skill allows her to craft conversations that always seem genuine and bring us into scenes with ease and authenticity.
For all her skill, however, Patchett's chapters can be too long. Such is the case with the three dozen or so pages in the opening chapter of Commonwealth, her seventh novel and a 2016 bestseller.
Patchett's admittedly semi-autobiographical tale begins with the arrival of Bert Cousins, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney. He turns up, uninvited and carrying a large bottle of gin, at the christening party for Franny Keating, the second daughter of Beverly and Fix Keating, the latter a local cop. There appears to be an immediate attraction between Beverly, an exceptional beauty, and Cousins, a married father of four. In a novel notable for its lack of drama, a deliberate choice by Patchett, there is one single--and pivotal--moment at this early 1960s California celebration. It sets off major changes for both families.
The next chapter finds an adult Franny visiting Fix, her now elderly, cancer-riddled father, who is deemed terminally ill. This encounter provides us with an example of how the novel's 50-year storyline jumps forwards and backwards, told in what is, essentially, a series of vignettes with different narrators. But back to the second chapter: Beverly is now married to Bert and the newlyweds are resettled in Virginia, where Bert grew up. A court has determined that Beverly and Bert will have custody of Bert's four children for the entire summer. It is here that six siblings of the newly formed "mixed" family will bond, to varying degrees, and form lifelong ties.
Patchett never fully addresses the how and why behind the divorces. But the breakups happened and were not as cataclysmic as you might first surmise. Most of the kids, with a notable exception, seem to get along fairly well. There's an early incident involving Cal, the oldest of the Cousins siblings, and it takes many chapters to find out what really took place--or what the others say has happened. The event--and the differing memories of it--shape the family's relationships.
Another key development: Law-school-dropout-turned-hotel-bar-server Franny's involvement with the much older author Leon Posen, the love of her young life. He steals Franny's family history and turns it into a best-selling book, also titled Commonwealth, to the dismay of some of the family who clearly recognize themselves in the pages.
Patchett's book more or less focuses on Franny, Fix and Albie, one of the Cousins' siblings, so the reader is left wanting to know more about the other characters not in the spotlight. Several events involving Teresa, Bert's betrayed ex-wife, caught my attention. One is the way in which the now single, working mom, left raising four kids on her own, takes revenge on Bert and Beverly as she prepares to send her children off to Virginia for the summer.
Then there is the chapter detailing Teresa's memorable visit to her oldest daughter, Holly, the sibling who seeks to escape the others. The retired Teresa visits Holly at a Zen meditation center in Switzerland where she's lived for about 25 years. Unlike other visitors, Teresa joins the occupants in their daily meditations. That brings Teresa closer to Holly. She also has a vivid "vision" of one of her other children and observes that her daughter has essentially "sentenced" herself to a form of prison.
The plot fills in and, by the final chapter, you are pretty well caught up on who did what to whom, in the siblings' versions, and what's happened to the parents of the two families.
Undertaken by a less skilled and less imaginative writer, this would be just another tale of a reconstituted family and the aftermath of multiple divorces. But in Patchett's fertile mind, Commonwealth is a sort of prose family album complete with captivating snapshots of characters who will hold your interest.
Commonwealth is available in several print, electronic and audio versions from Amazon.com.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.