Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett ✎✎✎✎

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Amid a gin-soaked christening party in sunny Southern California, two adults share a kiss: a decision that upends the lives of two married couples and their six children. What begins in California leads to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and reverberates to the Swiss Alps, the Hamptons, Hollywood, and New York.

In 2005, my long-established book club read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and thus began our devotion to all things Patchett. We devoured State of Wonder, Run, The Magician’s Assistant, The Patron Saint of Liars. Patchett has a way of writing the beauty of extraordinary moments within sometimes ordinary lives. In Commonwealth, the lives are much more ordinary and even the extraordinary moments are prompted by commonplace events: a family vacation, a bee sting, a christening gift.

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My book club met this week to discuss Commonwealth and several of us had the same reaction to reading it. After putting down the book for the night, you come back to it and find that you’ve missed something. Somehow something major has happened that you don’t remember. So you backtrack and re-read trying to find the trail that you forgot and instead, find it isn’t there. I believe this is intentional. The Washington Post reviewer felt much the same way:

Offered only the thinnest exposition and confronted with the details of four parents and six children, you may find yourself grasping for a dramatis personae. Indeed, for many pages, reading “Commonwealth” feels like being somebody’s baffled second husband at a family reunion. Who are all these people? How is he related to her? Whose child is that? Even Franny admits that “she couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/commonwealth-ann-patchetts-masterful-novel-of-family-and-family-secrets/2016/09/06/fdc14946-7062-11e6-9705-23e51a2f424d_story.html

There is a family saga here, one which I’ve learned resembles many of the circumstances ann-patchettin which author Ann Patchett was raised. But my take-away from Commonwealth was that Patchett was commenting more on writing than on family. Franny, whose christening party begins the novel, grows to adulthood and has a long-term relationship with a prominent author 30 years her senior. Franny tells him her family story which he promptly novelizes to great acclaim — and the sale of movie rights.

And now twenty years later here was Albie in the actress’s summer house, having read about that day he had largely slept through in a novel written by someone he’d never met. Franny shook her head. Her hands were cold. She had never been so cold before. “I’m sorry,” she said. The words came without volume and so she said them again. “I know that isn’t worth anything but I’m sorry. I made a terrible mistake.”

“How did you make a mistake?” Leo said. He reached into the box and took out the bottle of Beefeater. “I’m going to have a drink. Would anyone else like a drink?”

“Did you think I was never going to see it?” Alfie asked. “I mean, maybe that was a good guess. It took me long enough.”

“I was trying to explain to him before you got here,” Leo said, pouring some gin in a glass. “Writers get their inspirations from a lot of places. It’s never any one thing.”

Franny looked at Leo, willing him to pick up his glass and go back out to the porch to smoke with his guests. “Just give us a minute,” she said to him. “This isn’t about you.”

“Of course it’s about me,” Leo said. “It’s my book.”

“I still don’t understand this,” Albie said, pointing at Franny and then at Leo. “How did he wind up with my life?”

Ultimately it may be the STORY of the life rather than the living of it that is the ultimate separator or connector of this family.

Commonwealth begins with a party and ends with a party and but gin and regret fuel the journey. I highly recommend it for your book club.

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Ann Patchett provides lots of delicious food options if you want to cook from the book.

Franny’s christening features gin and oranges.

Franny and Leo’s Hamptons excursions offers several possibilities:

A meal of steak, asparagus, baked potatoes, salad and cake. Frank rubs the steak with “a little bit of Old Bay” and then lets it sit before cooking.

Another meal involves her mother’s seafood chowder, salad with nectarines, cheese biscuits.

Lobster.

The final party of Commonwealth features a Virginia Christmas feast: ham biscuits, boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, petit fours.

Our book club’s hostess served the ever-present gin with fresh-squeezed orange juice as was served at Franny’s christening. Salmon poached in lemon. Roasted asparagus. A salad with nectarines. Orange cake. It was delicious.

MUSIC

My playlist would include:

Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel

Sweet Virginia, Rolling Stones

It Never Rains in California, Alan Hammond

D.I.V.O.R.C.E, Tammy Wynette

Wrapped Around Your Finger, The Police

Happy Reading!

 

 

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RLS: Under the Wide and Starry Sky and Treasure Island

pin-up pirateNancy Horan certainly found treasure with her debut novel, Loving Frank, a fictionalized account of the life and loves of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Horan reaches for the skies above Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland’s beloved author of Treasure Island. In my and my book club’s opinion, the second book was less successful, perhaps because we could find no one to really like very much.

Robert Louis Stevenson.(OBIT. 3975)

Robert Louis Stevenson. (OBIT. 3975)

Robert Louis Stevenson, despite his adventurous tales, was consumptive most of his life. For some unfathomable reason, he fell head over heels in love with the (in Horan’s telling) vain, neurotic, self-centered Fanny Van de Griff Osborne, an Indiana native, who had run away from her cheating husband in California. Fanny took care of Louis far better than her own son who died before she and Louis returned to California to seek and obtain Fanny’s divorce so she could marry.

All of this — and I MEAN ALL — is recounted in great detail in Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Clearly, Horan’s research was in-depth, wide-spread and exhaustive. As I reader though, I just wasn’t quite sure I needed to know exactly what they had for lunch on July 28, 1887 or the name of the third purser to the second captain on the boat they didn’t take. I jest, but after 470-some pages, you will see what I mean.

fannyThe New York Times had a far better opinion than I, calling Under the Wide and Starry Sky “a novel that shows how love and marriage can simultaneously offer inspiration and encumbrance, especially when the more successful partner believes that, as far as artists go, “a family could tolerate only one.” The Stevensons’ story is full of morbidity and sacrifice, chronicling losses and gains — and, of course, the writing of classics like “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Kidnapped,” none of which, Horan suggests, would have been possible without Fanny Stevenson’s careful nurturing of her husband.”

Fanny, in Horan’s hands, holds no charm for the reader.

The carved clock on the mantel ticked off a minute before she said dully, “Just write.”

She resisted being joked into a happier humor.

“A good novel might cure your boredom,” he suggested when he realized Fanny had stopped reading books or writing stories. Only the Lancet held her attention.

“This article says that some vinegars erode your intestines.”

Under the Wide and Starry Sky depicted Stevenson’s creative process in an engaging, inviting manner. Enough to cause me to download and listen to the audiobook of Treasure Island, a classic novel I’d never made time for in the past.

Louis spread out a piece of paper on a table and began painting an island with some watercolors. Below the drawing, he wrote “Treasure Island.”

“Imagine that there is an island where a chest full of gold is buried,” he said to Sammy. “There is a boy named Jim who, quite by chance, comes into possession of a map of the island. The map has been drawn by a crusty old sailor of questionable morals, a man named, ah . . . Billy . . . Billy Bones. And through some series of events, the boy goes off on a schooner to look for the treasure. He is traveling with a collection of sailors, some of them decent fellows, and some scoundrels bent on killing the other men when they find the gold . . .”

johnny-depp-pirates-of-the-caribbeanI had no idea that in Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson essentially created out of whole cloth the entire peg-legged, parrot-carrying, shivering-me-timbers, x-marks-the-treasure-spot, dead-men’s-chest pirate that we know and love, OH JOHNNY DEPP how we love ye, today.

But he did. And he came up with the names Ben Gunn, Long John Silver, Billy Bones, the Hispaniola. Treasure Island is a fun, but somewhat tedious on audio, adventure. But maybe I’m just partial to my Kentucky homie Mr. Depp. Treasure Island though I can recommend without reservation to read for your book club. It is one of the most frequently dramatized of all novels and a fun one to read to your children. It’s got those little passages that send a shiver down the timbers.

“His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were–about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main. By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea, and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described. My father was always saying the inn would be ruined, for people would soon cease coming there to be tyrannized over and put down, and sent shivering to their beds; but I really believe his presence did us good. People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life, and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog” and a “real old salt” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.”

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I marked several passages of food in Under the Wide and Starry Sky and the narrative travels from Scotland, England, France to San Francisco, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. In one scene on a particularly warm evening in Bournemouth, Scotland, they serve a large bowl of mashed potatoes with lamb. When Louis takes off on a donkey for a road trip, he takes with him “black bread, a bottle of brandy, a leg of mutton. . . .Tin of chocolates and sausage.” On the Pacific Island, due to a shipping halt, at one point, RLS and Fanny shared one avocado for dinner. The salts of Treasure Island drink lots of rum, brandy and eat lots and lots of salted goat (ugh). So have at the salted goat if you want, but here’s my Treasure Island-inspired menu:

Rum Punch

2 cups spiced rum

2 1/2 cups pineapple juice

2 1/2 cups orange juice

1/4 cup lime

Mix and serve over ice.

Shrimp Cocktail

Barbecued chicken legs or wings

Those little gold coin chocolates

MUSIC

There is mention of a Mozart sonata or two in Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum repeats and repeats (and repeats) in Treasure Island.

My playlist would include

Jimmy Buffet’s A Pirate Looks at 40.

Ray Steven’s The Pirate Song

Soundtrack from Pirates of the Caribbean

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Falling: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

mallorca

Have you ever thought that life would all make sense when you got to the end of it and looked back? Have you identified those moments, decisions, actions in which life changed course immediately? The Rocks, Peter Nichols’ second novel, raised these questions in my mind but didn’t answer them reassuringly. It did, however, give me a very enjoyable read.

When the book opens, it is 2005 and long-divorced couple Lulu and Gerald have encountered one another for the third time in the sixty years since their disastrous honeymoon, despite being two ex-patriot Brits living on the same small Spanish Island. The chance meeting at a local market, ends on the road to Lulu’s resort hotel, the Rocks.

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

[Gerald] caught up with Lulu just outside the Rocks. He grabbed her arm again with strength field by rage, and spun her round.

“You never — he stared, with a smoker’s bulling growl, but his chest was empty of air, heaving spasmodically.

Again, Lulu shook off his grip. But she was surprised and immensely pleased to see the effort Gerald had made, how overwrought, breathless, and unwell he was. It occurred to her that with just a nudge, he might easily die of a heart attack right in front of her. “You’re pathetic, Gerald. An empty, hobbling husk of a man.” A flame of old anger rose in her. “You’re a belter! A miserable, wretched shit of a fucking —

You never developed the film! Did you!” The furious, strangled world erupted wetly out of Gerald’s chest, his body pitching forward. “I lured them away! Do you understand? I got them away ! I — ” His blue-and-gray glistening face thrust into hers, but he had no more breath.

The encounter ends, shall we say, badly and without further explanation. Over the course of the next several hundred pages, Nichols leads the reader back in time through the lives of Gerald and Lulu, Gerald’s daughter Aegina and her child Charlie, Lulu’s son Luc and his frustrated careers, and illuminates motivations, temptations, sins, and omissions in reverse. The Rocks drops the reader into 2005, 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, until, finally, we reach the beginning in 1948, and the revelation of what happened on Gerald and Lulu’s honeymoon voyage.

It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, reviewed here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/.

Emma Straub’s 2014 novel The Vacationers, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/ is also set during a disintegrating family’s vacation on Mallorca, but other than setting has little in common with The Rocks. 

Gerald Rutledge, my favorite character of the book, has devoted his life to three things: repeating Odysseus’ voyage and

John William Waterhouse, 1891

John William Waterhouse, 1891

finding the actual locations of incidents in The Odyssey; raising his daughter Aegina; and working and preserving his own little bit of Mallorcan paradise with its olive groves and lemon trees. Lulu, conversely, I didn’t like at all. She devotes her entire life, seemingly, to scheming revenges, neglecting her child, and plotting sexual pairings.

Kate Christensen, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, read Nichols’ memoir Sea Change.

As I read, I had a series of “aha!” moments; the parallels between Nichols’s own life and marriage and those of his fictional characters were deeply satisfying to uncover. Nichols, like his character Luc, grew up partially on Mallorca, the son of divorced parents. Like the novel’s secondary lovers, Luc and Aegina, Nichols and his ex-wife met as children on the island, and their own romance failed, in part, because of their inability to transcend their childhood knowledge of each other and ­become adults together. The memoir, like the ­novel, contains a precipitous nautical elopement, dope smuggling in Morocco and a young wife held hostage by pirates. People getting into trouble, both on boats and in marriages, might be said to be the common theme between the two books.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/books/review/the-rocks-by-peter-nichols.html

I very much enjoyed The Rocks. The themes of regret, misunderstanding, romantic love and adventure will be excellent fodder for your book club’s discussion.

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On board Szabo’s yacht, a luxurious menu is served.

Two young crewmen appeared with bowls of salad. They poured wine for each of the guests. . . . the plates were handed out: cold grilled quail with a reduced fig sauce, tiny warm new potatoes, avocado halves filled with pomegranate seeds, plates of toast with pate de foie gras.

Gerald’s own menu is much simpler: “Aegina had made the tumbet she had learned from her mother: a Mallorcan dish full of aubergines, tomatoes, onion, garlic, goat cheese, and olives from Gerald’s trees.”

This recipe for Mallorcan Tumbet fromSpanish Sabores blog looks like the genuine article:  http://spanishsabores.com/2013/09/15/mallorcan-tumbet-recipe/

MUSIC

Aegina listens to her father’s favorite records while painting. Those mentioned, pastoral music of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century English composers, are: “Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, Holst, Finzi, Alwyn, Bantock, Parry, Bridge, Delius, Moeran.”

iTunes has a $7.99 album of Elgar’s music. Elgar: Enigma Variations, Introduction & Allegro. Spotify has an English Song Series by Butterworth you could play for free.

MOVIE CASTINGthe rocks

Gerald – Benedict Cumberbatch

Lulu – Emily Blunt

Luc – Jamie Bell

Aegina – Oona Chaplin

Happy Reading & Eating!

Easy links for purchase:

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