For years, friends have raved about Ann Patchett’s novels, especially “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder.”
I haven’t read those. What I have read are her non-fiction books, first “Truth and Beauty,” about her friendship with the disfigured writer Lucy Grealy, which stunned me. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could so freely and publicly expose a friend’s troubles and foibles the way Patchett exposed Grealy’s, who died of a heroin overdose at age 39.
Then along came Patchett’s 2013 essays, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” So bright, so funny, so insightful. You had to love this woman.
Now here’s “Commonwealth,” Patchett’s 7th novel due in September. At last, I thought, I’ll be a true fan.
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Well, not exactly. Yes, her prose is smooth as malt, and I admire her nimble juggling of plot to create suspense. But the story of a blended family of brothers and sisters and their divorced and sometimes remarried parents over five decades reminded me of those long holiday letters from far-flung friends. Not exactly tedious. Not riveting either.
Embedded in this novel, however, is a fascinating sub-story. One of the siblings, Franny, falls in love with a Saul Bellow-type novelist, who uses the story of her blended family – including her step-brother’s death – to create a wildly successful novel, which becomes a wildly successful movie. When family members see it, they want to flee the theatre.
Was Patchett thinking of Lucy Grealy’s siblings and their reaction to “Truth and Beauty”? You have to wonder... and hope.