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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Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

The Look of Light

Before I move on to other cities from our trip, I remember I had written prior to visiting Paris that Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon “makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.”

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Sunrise on the morning commute

Apart from the day after we arrived when jet lag didn’t wake us until 1:30pm (!), our days were full of walking different neighbourhoods; visiting art galleries, historic sites, and monuments; eating baguettes, macarons, galettes, crêpes; ordering a café crème and deciding I DID like coffee as long as there was sugar in it; taking pictures of colourful doors and narrow streets, returning to our Airbnb exhausted in the best kind of way.

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A former train station, Musée d’Orsay is filled with Impressionist paintings. Our favourite museum in Paris.

As much as I could on a first trip to Paris, I tried to pause, to really look around me, to appreciate the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and secular, to follow my favourite Impressionist painters in looking for the light. Here are some of those moments.

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Strolling through Luxembourg Gardens with a view of the Pantheon

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Couples dance to live music in Montmartre. This scene for me captured Paris at its most romantic.

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The love lock bridge is gone but that doesn’t stop people from decorating the posts of Le Post des Arts.

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I could care less about the Forum shopping mall but the ceiling fascinated me.

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The enchanting Notre Dame

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Classic V-shaped building and wide boulevards from the Haussmann era of Paris’s city planning

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This boy stopped so I could get a picture of the door but I like it better with him in it.

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The light on this galette (like a crêpe but made with buckwheat flour) makes it look even more divine! One of the best things I ate.

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Dinosaur meets Eiffel Tower

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Backside of Basilica du Sacré-Coeur. Did you know it has a pig gargoyle?

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Hotel de Sully in the fashionable Marais district

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The golden hour hitting the extravagant Palais Garnier (opera house)

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I have a thing for red doors, and architecture that melds in interesting ways.

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A decadent visit to Ladurée on Les Champs-Élysées

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If this is what Sainte Chapelle looked like on a grey day, imagine if the sun was streaming through all that stained glass.

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The view from L’Arc de Triomphe is magnificent in all directions.

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La Madeleine meets Calvin Klein. Unfortunately this kind of juxtaposition was a common sight.

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Moonlight over the Louvre. Bonne nuit, Paris.

Literary Paris

Before I travel somewhere, I tend to immerse myself in literature about the place. It’s part of my pre-trip research. And I’m not talking Rick Steves or Lonely Planet (though I did my fair share of reading those too). I’m talking about fiction and memoir.

My pre-Paris reading included Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn, and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

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Taking my first picture

Pieces of these books returned to me on our one-week stay in Paris last fall. Upon emerging from the metro at St-Germain-des-Prés, the first thing I take a picture of (after pinching myself that that is all real) is the café Les Deux Magots made famous by literary and intellectual patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and James Joyce, to name a few.

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While we didn’t eat at Les Deux Magots, we did have breakfast at the neighbouring rival Café de Flore one morning, which boasted an equally impressive clientele. In “A Tale of Two Cafés,” a chapter in Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik muses on why the Flore has become more popular among Parisians since the late 1990s. We wanted to experience this legendary ambience but it came at a high price. And while sitting on the terrace watching a morning unfold was lovely, the slow and snobby service left a bad taste in our mouths, even though we expected it to a certain extent given we are tourists with obvious English accents and backpacks. Next time I would just go for their hot chocolate which is apparently a must-have.

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Ernest Hemingway cropped up again in The Latin Quarter. We visited his former apartment at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine and ate our last dinner in Paris overlooking Place de la Contrescarpe, a square he mentions several times in his memoir. We also tracked down Gertrude Stein’s apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.

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Ernest Hemingway’s apartment

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Gertrude Stein’s apartment

Plaques indicating where famous people were born, lived, died, or did something remarkable are commonplace. I loved walking down seemingly “normal” streets (which really don’t exist in Paris), only to discover a plaque with a very famous name on it. Even on the tiny rue Visconti, the site of our Airbnb, playwright Jean Racine died and author Honoré de Balzac established his printing house. Tons of surprises like this awaited us upon arrival and added joy to our wanderings.

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“Home” for the week was down this charming, narrow street

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Keeping company with Balzac’s printing house

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Where Voltaire died

Other sites we planned for, like the apartment in Montmartre where Vincent Van Gogh stayed when he lived in Paris at 54 rue Lepic. It was his brother Theo’s. A pair of dried sunflowers hang from the third floor shutters, marking the spot. (As an aside, “0” is our first floor and their 1st is our 2nd floor, etc). In Amsterdam, the last city we visited on our one-month European trip, I bought Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and that was a perfect way of coming full circle from our beginning in Paris.

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Can you spot the sunflowers? (three floors up from the blue door)

And of course no talk about literary Paris would be complete without mentioning Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore you can get lost in in its own right, cozying up with a book on a couch next to its resident cat, reading the inspiring quotes on the walls and stairwells, breathing in the smell of old paper, playing the worn piano (though not after 8pm), chatting with fellow bibliophiles, and feeling like you are in literary heaven.

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Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”

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Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.

Maudie: A Marriage of Misfits

I am Canadian, work at an art gallery, but had never heard of Nova Scotia folk painter Maud Lewis before.

That changed when I saw Maudie, and I am really grateful to this beautiful movie for introducing me to her (it was filmed in Newfoundland though).

I saw it around the time my own artist-husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary and it got me thinking about Maud and Everett’s unconventional marriage.

As much as the movie shows Maud painting her charming scenes of rural life in her 13.5 by 12.5-foot house, the story is more about two misfits stumbling their way towards happiness together.

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The artist opening her house covered in paintings (Mongrel Media)

Maud Lewis was born in 1903, tinier than everyone else and with almost no chin. She suffered from juvenile arthritis that worsened as she grew older and made it incredibly difficult for her to hold a paintbrush. In the movie version, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she walks with a limp and keeps her chin tucked in, her body more and more bent as time goes on.

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Typical look on Everett’s face (Mongrel Media)

Everett is an irascible fish peddler with little to no social skills (Ethan Hawke also gives a great performance). That’s why it’s rather funny that when he puts up an ad for a housekeeper and Maud answers it, he takes convincing to accept it.

He reluctantly makes space for Maud in his house, yet doesn’t know what to do with this woman who, despite so much pain in her past (and far from just physical), exudes an infectious joy. She is also very witty.

Everett and Maud eventually get married but they enter into it without ideals. A man Everett works with and his partner are the only witnesses, and he says to the newlywed couple, “I don’t know whether to offer you congratulations or condolences.” Early in the story, he had seen Everett hit Maud.

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Just married (Mongrel Media)

There are definitely times when Everett and Maud’s relationship made me uneasy. As my sister pointed out, their complicated love story is not surprising given they are two hurting people coming together. (My one criticism of the movie is that we don’t know anything of Everett’s past to connect with his pain in the same way we get to with Maud). And yet we see a softer side to Everett as he and Maud spend more time together as husband and wife. Kate Taylor in her Globe & Mail review sums up how I felt watching his character:

Hawke’s precise performance manages to make the plight of an illiterate, insecure and occasionally abusive man deeply sympathetic, inducing pity rather than anger.

When Everett and Maud return home after their wedding, she puts her stocking feet on his dress shoes and they hold each other like they are dancing. She says, “We’re like a pair of odd socks.” He tells her he is an old grey one, all bent and misshapen, while she is a cotton sock, canary yellow. They continue to dance. He says he’s sure to say something cantankerous in the morning again. She smiles.

This was such a tender scene to witness. It showed a choice, an acceptance, to love someone as they are. After living and working together so closely, Maud and Everett didn’t seem to have any illusions about each other. Maud changed Everett to a certain extent, but in other ways, not really. He was still a grumpy, reclusive man who didn’t know what to do with emotion. Do I think they found happiness together? At least the way the film portrayed it, yes. A dying aunt tells Maudie she is probably the only family member who ended up happy. And she certainly looked it, despite her failing body. And she certainly painted it.

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Maud Lewis poses with one of her paintings in front of her home in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia (Courtesy AGNS)