Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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Day 109: State of Wonder

Cover for State of WonderBest Book of the Week!
Ann Patchett is another writer whose works are all different from each other. You never know what to expect, except that they will be compelling, imaginative, and beautifully written.

At the beginning of State of Wonder, Dr. Marina Singh’s coworker has died in the Amazon. Their employer, Vogel Pharmaceuticals, sent him out to determine the status of a project run by the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson. Swenson has sent a brief message saying that Anders Eckman died of a fever.

Mr. Fox, the company’s CEO and Marina’s lover, asks Marina to go out to Manaus, locate Dr. Swenson’s encampment, and find out what happened to Eckman and what is going on with the drug. Dr. Swenson is working on a drug to help women conceive, based upon the startling late fertility of the women in a tribe of Amazonian Indians, and Vogel has given her an open check book. But she has written no reports, nor has she provided any information about how the project is coming along.

As Marina changed her career path years ago based upon a tragic incident while Dr. Swenson was her medical school professor, she is not at all convinced she is the right person for the job. To make things worse, the drug she is given for malaria in preparation for the trip awakens nightmares about her father that she had as a child.

In Manaus, the airport loses her luggage and she is left waiting, because no one knows where Dr. Swenson’s camp is. Finally, Dr. Swenson arrives and reluctantly takes her back into the Amazon to the encampment of scientists, all investigating their own projects. In a way, this journey into the heart of darkness is also a journey Marina takes to confront her own past.

It is difficult to describe why this is such a wonderful book without giving too much away. If you are expecting a travelogue of beautiful jungle sights, you’ll be disappointed. Manaus is an unpleasant city, although with a gorgeous opera house, and Patchett describes the Amazon as both beautiful and terrible at the same time.

The plot takes unexpected turns as Marina gets involved in life at the outpost and becomes attached to a young deaf boy. It’s a book that is written in exquisite prose, that is totally enthralling, that you do not want to put down.