Monday, 23 January 2017


Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

           Assistant District Attorney Albert (called Bert) Cousins gatecrashes a christening party one Sunday in Los Angeles.  He hardly knows Fix Keating, the detective who is celebrating his baby Francie’s baptism, but he’d heard other police and colleagues discussing the upcoming Sunday festivities, so he decided to come too – even though he hadn’t been invited.
            For Albert Cousins cannot bear to go home;  his wife and he have had three children in very quick succession, and Teresa is now hugely pregnant with a fourth.  His reckless statement when courting Teresa that he would love to have kids – ‘lots of them!’ is now coming to grim fruition, and he finds that he would rather work himself into the ground than spend any more time than he has to in the chaos and mayhem created by small children.  And the gilt has definitely worn off the gingerbread for his poor wife, who might as well be a solo mother for all the assistance she gets from her absentee husband:  she would feel even more fury if she knew that instead of coming home he has secreted himself at a party to which he wasn’t even invited, just so that he can kill time until after the yelling, disgusting, slobbering wee ones are in bed.
            To add insult to painful injury, Bert meets Fix’s wife Beverly whipping up a storm of drinks in the kitchen.  He cannot believe that a perfectly ordinary looking guy like Fix (short for Frances Xavier) could be wed to such a beautiful woman.  HE should be her knight;  her champion;  her lover.  Beverly thinks so too, and both embark on an affair that breaks up both families, and the hearts of all.
            They eventually marry, but not for keeps – spitefully, Bert makes life as hard as possible for Teresa (he is a legal eagle, after all), tying up their finances in drawn-out, complicated exchanges – then, when he is successful in having his four children stay with him for the entire summer vacation, palms them off onto his new bride.  Beverly didn’t bargain for a job as nanny to six children, all of whom have ‘issues’ caused by the divorces.  Both her daughters live with her – again, clever legal representation – and Fix is only allowed to see his daughters for two weeks in the summer break.  In her mind, this is entirely fair.  But four extra kids?  And such weird ones?  And where is their father, when he should be on deck being a strong, firm role model?  Hiding in his office, pretending to work;  repeating the behaviour that wrecked his first marriage.  Divorce # two coming up.
            Ms Patchett’s Dramedy of family life is one that every family can recognise, especially for those with new Stepsiblings they are supposed to blend seamlessly with so that they are all One Big Happy Family – which is what the new Stepmums and Stepdads always hope for but seldom occurs, as is proven by Frannie, whose christening party it was twenty-four years ago. 
            In the first flush of a wonderful love affair with a famous novelist, she recounts to him her summer vacations with her stepsiblings, their secrets and their faults and their view of their respective parents’ ill-starred union, never dreaming that her lover would weave her family’s travails into a best-seller, with future movie rights up for grabs.  The ructions caused by her indiscretion reverberate throughout the family.  Their lives – and loyalties - will never be the same again.
            Ms Patchett effortlessly demonstrates yet again her superior gift to transform what she sees and feels into a chronicle of lives wasted, lost – and celebrated.  What a pleasure she is to read.  FIVE STARS

Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay, and
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, Books four and five
Of The Neopolitan Novels.

            Elena Ferrante is justly famous for her quartet of novels recounting the lifelong friendship of two girls born in Naples in the same month of the same year, August 1944:  Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena (Lenu) Greco have travelled far from the violence and mean streets of their childhood – though Lila, whose mighty intelligence and beauty could have endowed her with a future of her choice, elects to stay in the neighbourhood, despite the breakup of her marriage and the end of her affair with Nino Sarratore, Elena’s great, unrequited love. 

           The neighbourhood is still controlled by the Solara brothers;  they now have fingers in many financial pies, and those who cross them or those who cannot pay the exorbitant cost of the ‘protection’ of being friends with them are soon ruined, financially, physically and spiritually:  the Solaras are very thorough.  And they are both obsessed with Lila, because she is the only person who has never been afraid of them;  her cheerful contempt is a constant thorn in their side and sooner or later they will find the means to bring her to heel – where she should be.  Elena, by contrast, decides that the only way she can have a happy life is to leave Naples, that city of the raucous working-class, academic Brahmins playing at being socialists and the sham modernism of its gimcrack architecture:  for her own survival she must find another life elsewhere – when all is said and done, there is nothing to keep her in Naples anyway:  she is at constant loggerheads with her family, who are proud of her educational achievements on one hand, and simultaneously contemptuous of her on the other, for not contributing any money to the family coffers.  And there is no chance of her great love for Nino Sarratore being returned;  in fact no-one seems to know where he is.  So!
            Yes, it is time to go and Elena is fortunate to gain a scholarship to a university in Pisa:  for the first time in her life, she is exposed on a semi-permanent basis to a completely different lifestyle;  different accents, manners, fashions and ways of learning.  The southern bumpkin has to transform herself as quickly as possible, or become an object of fun to her more sophisticated class mates.  Desperation to fit in, and her own academic excellence pave the way for a new Elena, one who discovers politics and socialism in particular, thanks to her new boyfriend Franco:  it is the late 60’s and the time of student unrest, particularly in Paris – she and Franco even travel to Paris (her first time out of Italy – could this really be happening to Elena Greco from the neighbourhood?).  Life’s boundaries have suddenly disappeared, and Elena cannot believe the intellectual, social – and sexual freedom that now exists.  And she begins work on her first novel.
            By this time, Franco is a figure from the past;  he failed his exams and after sporadic correspondence disappeared who knows where;  Elena is now seeing Pietro Airota, a young professor with a glowing future.  His mother is very encouraging of her work and through her many contacts arranges to have it published, much to Elena’s joy – and apprehension, for the story is about a secret, something she did entirely for revenge and self-disgust, and wrote originally as a cathartic exercise.  In the way of these things, her little book takes on a life of its own.  It becomes a success.
            And her marriage to Pietro is not.  After the birth of two daughters, the daily grind of domesticity and looking after a man whose head is always somewhere else, plus the absolute lack of enough inspiration to start another book means that Elena is more than ready for another titanic change in her circumstances.

           Nino Sarratore reappears.
            Suddenly, Elena is assailed – pursued by her god, he who had never shown any romantic or sexual interest in her before now finds her irresistible.
Nino has also advanced his own academic career prospects by marrying into a wealthy and influential Neopolitan family but, afire with his huge passion for Elena, swears to leave his wife (‘I never loved her!’) and child – if only Elena will join him in Naples – what a life they will have, together at last, always.
            It takes some time for Elena to realise that her idol has feet of clay:  after persuading her to burn all her boats and end her marriage to move south to join him she is deeply hurt to find that he is not prepared to jettison his own ties to his wife;  instead he maintains two households – well, why not when he has access to so much money?  And though he acknowledges paternity of a daughter born to them, he still refuses to make any permanent commitment.
            Lila adds insult to injury by disclosing that he has made advances to her as well, and other old friends from the neighbourhood report instances of his casual, almost daily betrayals:  finally, Elena must make the break and stand or fall on her own – and, once again, Lila and her companion Enzo come to the rescue.   The apartment above theirs in the neighbourhood is vacant.  Why not move in?
            Why indeed.  Elena is back where she started, in the mean streets of her childhood, there to hate herself for subjecting her daughters to a reduced standard of living in a low-class area, yet simultaneously revelling in the loyalty and affection of her dearest friends.  Lila and Enzo have discovered gold in computers (it’s the 80’s) and have started their own company;  they are even computerising the files of the Solaras – a task more fraught with danger than they realise, especially when Lila still won’t show them the proper respect.
            It is only a matter of time before the Solaras take their revenge with an act so terrible that it destroys lives, friendships, and the neighbourhood:  everything that defined Lila, Elena and their loved ones as good and inviolate has been shattered like breaking glass .  Their old lives have gone;  it is up to them as to what they will make of the future.  Elena manages and gains more success as a writer;  Lila is not so fortunate;  she rejects everyone and becomes angry and reclusive.  All friendships are over and Elena eventually leaves the neighbourhood for the last time, but not before witnessing the just and terrible retribution wrought on the Solara brothers.

            Yes:  the old adage ‘Revenge is a dish that people can eat cold’ was never more amply demonstrated.  Ms Ferrante has created a master work.  Her stark prose has the same effect as a fist in our faces.  She richly deserves all the praise heaped upon her.   FIVE STARS                    

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