Commonwealth: Coming Together after Breaking Apart

If ever there was a book to convince about why divorce isn’t great (in a non-didactic way), Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is it.

I don’t posit this as a main theme of the novel or want to reduce a masterpiece of storytelling down to this statement, but it is something that ran through my head while following the lives of ten characters over five decades (6 children, 4 parents), so I want to explore that lens a bit.

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The first chapter takes you into the house of a California couple, Fix and Beverly Keating, who are hosting a christening party for their second daughter Franny. It’s a long scene in which the omniscient narrator weaves in and out of multiple house guests, interactions, and seemingly unimportant observations that set the stage for the rest of the story. It is a kiss between Beverly and a surprise guest, Bert Cousins, that sparks an affair and leads to the eventual dissolution of both Beverly’s and Bert’s marriages.

The scene basically ends with the kiss though. The next chapter picks up with Fix as an old man going to the hospital with Franny for a cancer check-up. We understand Beverly and Fix divorced long ago, and yet the effects of their split and the blended Keating-Cousins children that result from Beverly and Bert’s marriage are very much the thread of this ambitious book. Patchett is concerned with inciting incidents and the long, complicated aftermath.

The two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, move with their mother and Bert to Virginia. Caroline makes no secret of being mad at her mother and wishes she could have stayed with her dad instead. Teresa keeps her four children (Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie) in California, but all six children come together in Virginia every summer when Bert gets his time with his kids, though ironically he never wants to spend any time with them. Beverly reflects on how all she ever wanted was her two daughters. Patchett’s decision to include the very real and mundane logistics of finding a chaperone for the four kids each summer on a cross-country flight is enough to make you feel sorry for everyone involved.

Sadness, blame, guilt, resignation, and regret all surface through this book, stemming from that one illicit kiss—that one action with a thousand consequences.

In a similar way of “like mother, like daughter,” Franny, as a twenty-something, gets involved with a famous author, Leon Posen, who’s married. Just like the opening scene of the christening party, Patchett vividly shows you that first encounter between Leon and Franny, and that scene is enough to fill-in-the-blanks about where their relationship goes. It goes into Franny recounting her family story to Leon who turns it into a bestseller and forces her family to revisit it all over. Again, an action with a thousand consequences.

Patchett primarily tells the story through the lives of the six children uneasily united in their disillusionment with their parents. The four parents get space too, but the bulk is the children’s stories told non-chronologically. There isn’t an obvious main character, but Franny would be it as Patchett spends more time on her and gives her the last word.

My only disappointment in reading the novel is that it wasn’t longer. I wasn’t ready to move on to what another child was up to in his/her adult life because I wanted to stay with the current character. An author who can create that desire in the reader has achieved something remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. The reader doesn’t tend to stay with flat or perfect characters. Each of the children are recognizable but not clichés—in other words, human. They surprise you, especially their movement from childhood to adulthood, and they each have a good mix of likeable and unlikeable qualities.
  2. Patchett understands that certain siblings in large, blended families get overlooked, especially in childhood (e.g. Jeannette and Albie). By giving attention to all of them, Patchett shows each person is interesting, even if they’re not all “doing” interesting things.
  3. The reader can witness a tragic incident in all of their lives from multiple perspectives, highlighting the various ways guilt and grief manifest.

In closing, I want to revisit my opening statement about this book showing how messy and unattractive divorce is. The book also shows six children picking up the pieces of their parents’ decisions and finding their way through the brokenness together. If ever there was a book to convince about the benefit of having siblings, Commonwealth is it.

Franny gave her sister a tired smile. “Oh, my love,” she said. “What do the only children do?”

“We’ll never have to know,” Caroline said.

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On Finishing War and Peace

The idea of writing a review on War and Peace is almost as daunting as reading the novel itself.

So I’m not going to. Instead, here are some bullet-point thoughts (probably spoilers in here) now that I’m done and not just a 1/3 of the way through:

  • The title is apt. The book flips between battlefields and domestic scenes as the Russian men go off to fight against Napoleon’s army and the women deal with things at home: mainly men woes and money woes. I preferred the domestic scenes.
  • The book also flips between the epic and the miniature: the grandeur of war, history, human action juxtaposed with the beautiful simplicity of staring at a night sky, a glance that reveals someone in a new way, a conversation that changes how you love people. In my opinion, Tolstoy is best at the latter.
  • It took me a while to figure out the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei, and Natasha Rostov, and that’s mostly because their names are listed in the description on the back of the book. I guess this shows 1) there are so many characters and 2) not a clear plot line to determine the main players.
  • I didn’t like Pierre Bezukhov (apparently modeled after Tolstoy) as much as I thought I would, except near the end. It seems like he functions similarly to Levin in Anna Karenina, but I found Levin far more winsome.
  • Speaking of Anna Karenina (the only other Tolstoy novel I’ve read), overall I preferred it to War and Peace (for plot and characters).
  • I’d rather have characters grow on me as I get to know them, rather than the other way around where I initially like them but grow to dislike them. That’s how I felt with Rostov, Princess Marya, and even Natasha somewhat. Prince Andrei was the most intriguing character, and perhaps the most honest: “I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I did not say that I could forgive. I cannot.”
  • There was a section in the middle that I absolutely loved and might be my favourite chapter of any book. Maybe I loved it so much because that’s the last time we really see the Rostov children as “children” before innocence gives way to experience.
  • The last 1/4 was the hardest to get through. The burning of Moscow went on forever, and Tolstoy gave far more attention to describing this historical event than wrapping up the plot on the domestic front with the characters’ fates that I was far more interested in. And when he did wrap them up, he did so hastily. The character I ended up caring about most (Sonya) essentially disappeared from the narrative in a very unresolved way.
  • The ending (if you can even call it that) was a philosophical treatise of Tolstoy’s thoughts on how history unfolds, and whether human’s actions are predestined or done freely. He should have published this separately; it felt like it didn’t belong.
  • Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? Hell no.
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Yes, I’m showing off the thickness of this monster. 1225 pages.

What I enjoyed most in reading War and Peace was Tolstoy’s language (translated by the excellent duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). His power of observation is unrivalled. Here are some passages that stand out (it’s really hard to choose just a few!):

When Princess Marya came back from her father, the little princess was sitting over her work, and she looked at Princess Marya with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have. It was clear that she did not see Princess Marya, but was looking deep inside herself–into something happy and mysterious that was being accomplished in her.

Prince Andrei smiled, looking at his sister, as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through.

Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible

Boris told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.

At that time there was a special atmosphere of amorousness in the Rostovs’ house, as happens in a house where there are very nice and very young girls.

When Pierre left and all the members of the family came together, they began to discuss him, as always happens after the departure of a new person, and, as rarely happens, they all said only good things about him.

For him, Moscow was comfortable, warm, habitual, and dirty, like an old dressing gown.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.

She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Have you read this book? If yes, I want to hear from you and what you thought about it!

The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

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As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

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We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.

The Paris Wife

As I will be visiting Paris for the first time this year, I’m getting more and more excited by reading stories set there.

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I recently finished The Paris Wife by Paul McLain that fictionalizes the marriage of Ernest Hemingway to his first wife Hadley Richardson from 1921 to 1927. The story is told through Hadley’s voice.

There are always two sides to a story and after discovering Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast that also focuses on his years with Hadley, I was intrigued at what her version would say. Since she didn’t write her own memoir, we have to rely on McLain’s research.

She made the time period and the characters come alive for me. Hadley and Hemingway’s meeting and early dating in Chicago felt a little cliché, but the book really sang when they moved to Paris as newlyweds. In the prologue, the narrator writes:

This isn’t a detective story—not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well- made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.

Of course, when someone says don’t keep watch that’s the very thing I do. Every time there was a new woman introduced into the story (and there are a lot of characters since Hadley and Ernest hung around other expat artists and their partners like the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound), I wondered if this would be the woman who destroyed their marriage.

I also kept watch for Hemingway. I noticed McLain treated him very carefully—too carefully. It seemed as if she wanted to acknowledge his cruelty towards Hadley while still making him likeable. There are hints of Hemingway’s bravado and aggression in living room boxing matches he has with friends and in his appetite for watching Spanish bull fights, but apart from one tumultuous quarrel, all his and Hadley’s marital tension is unsaid or so subtle it feels unrealistic. For a character known as a hothead, Hemingway speaks remarkably cool, reserved, and casual throughout the novel.

I felt for Hadley in the net she was caught in—trying to believe in marriage in an age and place where marriage was becoming less and less defined. Men tried keeping a wife and a mistress in the same house. Hemingway and Hadley tried this with their friend Pauline who ended up being the woman to keep watch for, and you can imagine this arrangement worked out swimmingly for everyone involved (high sarcasm there).

Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine young men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean’s worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.

Was Hadley as naive as McLain makes her out to be? I don’t know. I think you can be hopeful without being naive, but it does take her an awfully long time to clue into her husband’s infidelity. She is a good and faithful wife, but as Aritha van Herk writes in her review in The Globe and Mail, there are some definite moments in the book where Hadley could have been more nuanced, like when she loses a suitcase carrying literally all of Hemingway’s work (it was stolen on a train). She is all tears and apologies, but doesn’t she ever have moments of selfishness? Hemingway certainly did.

In reading this fictionalized memoir in the 21st century, I found it hard to completely sympathize with Hadley because she is portrayed as perfectly content to make her life dreams her husband’s. Her biggest streak of independence is playing the piano and practicing for a concert that she never ends up doing because that’s when she finds out about the affair. Certainly not every woman in this time period sacrificed like Hadley—look at Zelda Fitzgerald. Not saying she’s a healthy example either but finding your identity in your husband’s doesn’t leave you with much when the marriage dissolves.

I’d recommend reading A Moveable Feast and then The Paris Wife to see how the two accounts compare since McLain heavily drew on Hemingway’s memoir to create her version of this famous and tragic marriage.

Poems for Dark December

This Advent season, my husband and I are reading through poet-priest Malcolm Guite‘s book Waiting on the Word, which offers a poem a day from classic or contemporary poets accompanied by Guite’s reflections.

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We started yesterday for December 1 and it is exactly what we need right now. I don’t really know how to explain it other than I think art/poetry offers a balm for our aching hearts.

The Glance by George Herbert

When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltring in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart
And take it in.

Since that time many a bitter storm
My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
His swing and sway:
But still thy sweet originall joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll
And got the day.

If thy first glance so powerfull be,
A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light
In heavn’ above.

Guite opens his reflections on this poem for December 1 with the question:

“What might this moving and mysterious little poem have to offer us as we come to dark December and begin our Advent journey together?”

That phrase “as we come to dark December” has stuck with me. Indeed, it feels dark and heavy. For those of us in Vancouver, we haven’t seen the sun for two months. I normally don’t mind the rain but it has definitely affected me this time. And recent world events add a lot of darkness to our lives, leaving us uncertain, afraid, and confused about the future.

I don’t know if this is why I’m feeling less ready and excited for the Christmas season than usual, but I do find myself struggling to embrace it. Reading that someone else called this month “dark December” made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. And so I have offered up a found poem in response to George Herbert’s, that is true of how I am feeling and may be true for you too.

Poem for Dark December by Charlene Kwiatkowski

We are tired
The days are dark and long
The sky is a faucet that refuses to shut off
There is no twinkling of stars

Many a bitter storm our souls have felt
but we are in the season where the soul felt its worth
—because he appeared.
His sweet and gracious eye looked upon us
from the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross

Our hearts overrun with surging griefs
A thrill of hope seems farther away
We are waiting on many things
We are a weary world

Open the mirth that has been long sealed
Look us out of pain
We are desperate for your full-eyed love
Desperate to delight again.