REVIEW: COMMONWEALTH, BY ANN PATCHETT

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The story begins at a christening in an LA suburb. It especially zeroes in on a person who has crashed the party. Bert Cousins, from the DA’s office, seems oddly out of place in this party mostly populated by cops and their wives and children.

He doesn’t even bring a gift for the baby (Frances, the daughter of Fix and Beverly Keating). Just a large bottle of gin.

This man will go on to turn all their lives upside down. Yes, he had help from some of the other characters, but without actions he has taken, all of their lives would have been different.

Commonwealth is a fascinating story of dysfunctional families that carries the reader from the 1960s to the present. We don’t follow the characters in a linear style, but move back and forth. Sometimes we are swept backward by a character’s memory that takes us there. And sometimes we are catapulted back by events.

I was especially drawn to Fix Keating and his daughters, Caroline and Franny. But as we move along this circuitous pathway to follow each of their journeys, we see how the non-linear style works for the story. More information is yielded with each backward turn. And suddenly we are seeing some of the characters reconnect in unexpected ways as the story comes to its ending. And we are offered another glimpse into the Cousins family, a peek that we did not see before.

How does Franny’s young adult relationship with an author named Leon Posen change the trajectory of their lives…again? How has Caroline controlled the narrative of tragic events that brought sadness and loss to the families? Why does Albie, Bert’s youngest, seemingly drive the story in a new direction? In one Christmas that Franny spends with her mother Beverly and another of her husbands, with his grown children, she ponders the various connections by marriage. She maps out all the ways the future would unravel without the moorings of the past. The “what ifs” in their lives keep her mind spinning.

From LA to Virginia, with side journeys to Chicago and Manhattan, we see families with all their tarnished history, struggling to maintain broken bonds, even as time marches on, forcing them to face their mortality. Can they stay true to what connects them, even when they are in disarray? Will their core truths bring them peace? I loved this book, and the more I thought about it, and as I wandered along the strange pathways with the characters, I knew that I would be thinking of it for a long time. 5 stars.

cropped again 5***

REVIEW: EVERGREEN, BY REBECCA RASMUSSEN

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They were two people wanting a quiet life. So when Emil and Eveline moved to Evergreen, Minnesota, to start their married life together, they were prepared for the challenges of living in the forest. But what would separate them and keep them apart for too long would come unexpectedly and would change everything. Their story began in 1938.

After the birth of their son Hux came the news of Emil’s father’s illness. Emil’s departure to Germany would come at a time when wars were heating up, and leaving Germany would become an impossibility. Time passed, and while her husband was away, Eveline somehow managed, with the help of neighbors.

Until one day when a visitor came and took from Eveline something that would leave her powerless to change the consequences.

After an untenable decision changes lives, the story leaps ahead to 1954…and then again to 1961, with Hux an adult seeking his lost sister Naamah. In the end, the year is 1972, and while many separations have come and gone, there is a bond that links them all.

What happened to them all is revealed through the pages in a tale that sweeps across time and generations.

The emotional impact of Eveline’s decision would have an effect on all of their lives, but the reader only sees the after-effects in others. Without a look into her mind and heart, or seeing how Emil reacted to what she’d done left me struggling to make sense of the missing pieces of Emil and Eveline’s story. Leaping ahead across time left this reader with a disjointed feeling. A sad feeling of missed opportunities for healing. But then, finally, as Evergreen: A novel drew to a close, there was one recurring theme: mothers and children, separated, could be reunited, as if the past no longer defined them. 4.0 stars.