Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (2016)

commonwealth

American author Ann Patchett is a former winner of the UK Orange Prize for fiction for 2002’s “Bel Canto”.  Her family-themed novels have seen her compared to two other Queen Annes, prize-winning titans of modern fiction both, Ms. Tyler and Ms. Enright.  With this, her seventh novel she gives them a good run for their money but doesn’t quite eclipse them in the quality fiction stakes.

 I have never read Ann Patchett before but this book I had earmarked to read since publication because of its impressive initial reviews (“Outstanding” (The Observer)/”Dazzling” (The Sunday Times).  When I pulled out “Read a book by an author whose surname begins with a P” from the Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library this seemed an obvious choice.

 I always think I’m going to feel alienated by the Americanness of tales about family life but Anne Tyler has really drawn me in with hers on more than one occasion.  It’s the quality of her writing that does it and this is necessary to convey the complexities of family relationships in a way which feels both honest and convincing.  With “Commonwealth” Ann Patchett also succeeds with this.

 We begin in 1964 at a Christening Party for Los Angeles Cop Fix Keating’s daughter Franny.  One of the guests falls for Franny’s mother and lives shift from this point.  Two families of step-children meet each summer including Franny and her sister Caroline and a tragedy further complicates family relations.  Fast forward to 1988 when Franny is working a waitress in Chicago and she meets a writer who takes her family’s story to use in his own work, also called “Commonwealth”.  Although Franny is probably the central character her parents’ generation of family together with her sister and step-siblings are all well fleshed out.

 Plot-wise there are not too many surprises, which is why, just on the showing of this novel I will put Anne Tyler slightly ahead but anyone who has enjoyed novels such as the bestselling “Spool of Blue Thread” (one of my essential reads) should certainly seek “Commonwealth” out.

fourstars

“Commonwealth” was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.

Advertisements

100 Essential Books – Ladder Of Years – Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995)

images

tylerladder

 

This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read.  2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.”  I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3.  Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life.  This book confirms this.

“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995.  There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication.  Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area.  The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.

 Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members.  An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.

 We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change.  There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new.  It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.

 The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.

 The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet.  As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in.  It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies.  There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here.  When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works.  It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.

 I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in  quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over.  I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?

 Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.  

fivestars

I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”.  It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.

100 Essential Books – A Spool Of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler (Vintage 2015)

images

bluethread

This is my first introduction to American author Anne Tyler.  I knew her by reputation but have never read her before.  Her latest novel, her 20th  in a 51 year publishing career is selling so well it is likely to be many readers’ introduction to her work.  I picked this up as part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club promotion – Buy one and get another for £1.  This one leapt out at me, it is the one I wanted.  I had to spend some time choosing the additional £1 book – this seemed to be in a different class to the others, and yet, would still be a perfect Book Club choice.

Feedback about this book has been extremely positive and there was the suggestion that it had wide appeal, turning up on Book Prize short and long lists as well as being a popular favourite and word-of-mouth bestseller.  I cleared my mind of all the hype (“One of the finest novelists of modern times” – Bella Magazine. “How can it be so wonderful?”- Washington Post.  “Every sentence is perfect” – The Sun – the list goes on) and sat down and read…………and read……….and read………

I found it genuinely hard to put this book down and now have that feeling of loss got only when you have the finest literary experiences.  I wasn’t really expecting an American family saga to sweep me away, but it is up there amongst the best I’ve read this year, if not the best, and has all the characteristics for me to recommend it as one of my 100 Essential Reads.

This is the tale of four generations of the Whitshank family.  Unusually, it is structured so it tends to move back in time.  This gives Tyler the opportunity to use the family anecdote as a framework.  Every family has a few stories that are told over and over again, slightly reshaped by the telling and often moving through the generations.  The Whitshanks have two such stories, which they use as examples of holding out for what you want.  Moving the plot back in time picks up the moments when these stories originate, after we have become familiar with the present oft-told version.

The central characters Abby and Red Whitshank reside in a house that belonged to and was very special to Red’s father.  It remains central for their family of four children and their children.  Amongst Abby and Red’s offspring is the gloriously unreliable Denny, the son who disappears and turns up throughout his adult life and gives very little away.  The sense of frustration towards him is one of the things that binds this generation together.  The novel starts with him, in a typical act, phoning his parents to tell them he is gay and then hanging up –  a revelation which is never brought up again or seems to have any basis for truth.  The family also have to increasingly face up to the age-related failings of Abby and Red.

This branch of the family were so beautifully drawn that when there was a shift to the younger Abby and Red and his parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, I thought my enjoyment might diminish but it did not.  Within all the generations there’s the odd surprise which I didn’t see coming but which Tyler manages to seamlessly introduce into the plot – often with a sentence that just changes everything.  I can see why she is being called one of the most accomplished authors of our time.

Her books are generally set in the Baltimore area and seem to be all stand-alones meaning I have the opportunity to pick and choose what I want to read next.  (I’m usually such a stickler for reading authors work in chronological order, but as I’ve started with her 20th I feel confident I can go anywhere from here through the Tyler oeuvre.  Any suggestions anyone?

This was an excellent introduction and a perfect example of a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.

fivestars

 

A Spool Of Blue Thread is printed in the UK in 2015 paperback by Vintage (Penguin Books)