Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


It’s official. Ann Patchett is a literary genius.

Commonwealth is hard to explain, and it took me so long to pick up because besides being a multigenerational family tale, the description is pretty vague. I’m so glad I finally read it! This is a book that kept me reading late into the night, and only regretted a little bit the next day at work, which I haven’t done in a while.

The book is extremely character-driven, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much. Despite the depth of characterization, I wouldn’t describe the plot as slow-moving at all–there’s a family tragedy at the center of it all that ties the characters together and keeps the reader guessing.

This book has many different characters and perspectives, which is something I love in a book but is often difficult to do well. Ann Patchett does this beautifully. All the characters are fully fleshed out with real motivations and lives, even the ones that only have a few pages in their perspective. At the end thought about who I would identify as the central character. It’s probabably, Franny–the baby at the baptism responsible for mixing all their lives together in the first place–bringing the book full circle! Yet every other character feels just as vital.

Commonwealth is about guilt, forgiveness, and the complexities of familial love. It’s also set partially in Virginia, where I live and where everything bad in the book happens! I cracked up at all the descriptions of the summer heat and mosquitoes.

VERDICT: 4 books

Which Ann Patchett book should I pick up next? The only other one I’ve read is State of Wonder.

Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Anna: I love apocalyptic fiction, but I heard so many conflicting opinions about this author’s recent release, The Dreamers, that I decided to start with her previous novel.

The Age of Miracles has a lot of potential. At surface level, this book sounds like something I should love. It’s a character drive coming-of-age apocalyptic novel with a young and likable female protagonist, Julia. When earth’s days begin to slow and lengthen, society is split into people who follow the new system of “clock time” and people who abide by the sun and follow “real time”. Those who chose to follow real time are alienated, and the mainstream clock timers begin to exhibit symptoms of a gravity-driven disease.

This book scratches at the surface of something, and then fails to focus on the right things. When something interesting involving the end of the world happened I kept thinking, “we’ll get to that soon” but over and over again, we don’t. The societal division between clock time and real time is such an interesting idea, for example, but it is hardly explored. So much of this book feels like it’s on the surface of something but instead of diving deeper turns away and continues to explore the mundane and expected.

Another big problem I had is that many of the characters just don’t feel believable, besides Julia, who is about only thing about this book that feels real. Julia’s parents are poor stereotypes of a heterosexual marriage. Julia’s mom is always worried, anxious, and nagging her father, while her father is factual and completely robotic. I found it absolutely ridiculous and unbelievable that Julia’s father is completely unworried by the end of the world. HELLO, who wouldn’t be freaking out if Earth’s gravity shifted, people began to get sick, and the days unexplainably lengthened. The fact that he isn’t concerned at all about any of these things drove me insane. The author continually makes Julia’s mom out to be crazy for her anxieties, but since she’s the only character who seems scared by the impending doom, she’s one of the only characters I feel I can trust.

Don’t get me started on Seth. Walker just couldn’t decide what kind of character she wanted him to be. For such a character-driven novel, I expected more dynamic and complicated characters, and this isn’t the case. Both the plot and the characterization fall short.

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books


Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Anna: I’m finding this book very difficult to review. I love how detail-oriented the writing is and how Turtle’s internal dialogue dominates and drive the narrative. However, this book is hard to get through because of the horrific violence.

This is a survival/escape story. Strong warning for sexual, emotional, and physical abuse.

Tallent does a great job of building Turtle as a character, and we see her grow throughout the book. Turtles self-deprecating internal dialogue is really unique and shows the true impact of her dad’s abuse.

Turtle slowly realizes the extent of her father’s abuse. Part of what makes her realize she needs to leave is when she gets her period and therefore realizes she can get pregnant. She also helps realize that she needs to leave through her relationships with other characters, as she was isolated from other people for so long. Her romantic relationship with Jason is obviously a big part of this, too.

I like how Turtle ultimately defeated/escaped Martin with a skill that he taught her, i.e. shooting. It’s also her final revenge for so many things that he forced her to do, like making her shoot Cayenne. This showdown in also foreshadowed in the way that Turtle takes meticulous care of her gun and her knife, while Martin is so careless with his. It feels like Turtle finally takes ownership of herself. It feels full-circle.

I liked the ending. The fact that Turtle can’t even think about progressing in her relationship with Jason is realistic and I’m so glad Tallent ended it that way. I wouldn’t have believed it if they’d had a fairytale ending and if Turtle could automatically express her love for him. This also shows, like with the last scene with Anna and Turtle, that it’s going to take time for Turtle to recover from what’s happened to her, and that she never completely will.

Here’s what I had problems with:

There are lots of moments when it’s very apparent that the author is an adult male writing about prepubescent female anatomy, which honestly creeps me out. The way Turtle gets her first period IS NOT REALISTIC AT ALL. I thought she was having a miscarriage! There are so many scenes that are so cringy and obviously written by someone who does not possess female anatomy.

What in the world happened with the ocean, when Turtle and Jason got sucked out to sea? That scene is so abrupt and confusing that I had no idea what was happening, and I actually thought they were getting caught in a tsunami! Though I see the merit of stranding Turtle and Jason together on a cliff to grow their relationship, I still found this whole scene unnecessary and distracting (and not to mention so confusing). We know Turtle is tough and can survive in the wild and we don’t need to see it again here. I think a quieter bonding scene between Turtle and Jason would have been more effective.

I think there needed to be more Anna and Caroline. Both these women are presented as mother figures, yet they’re hardly developed. Anna’s character especially isn’t believable. As soon as she was introduced as the caring teacher I knew she would be the savior in the end. But then she’s hardly in the rest of the book, and she doesn’t even try to do anything when Turtle just disappears from school!

I wanted more about what happened to Turtle’s mom as well as more about the general past. For instance, Martin kept referring to another time when Turtle ran away, but we never get to see it as a reader. We’re told that Turtle’s mom killed herself to escape from Martin’s abuse, but that’s it. That’s also why I didn’t believe the bits about Caroline. If she was so close to Turtle’s mom, she had to have suspected something!

Mostly glaringly, there are bits of this book that feel violent for the sake of being violent. I think there’s a fine line between showing how something really is to bring light to an issue and exploiting it. Though Martin is clearly an awful person, this book sometime toed that line. Everything is shown to the reader, and it’s horrifying.

While I found I couldn’t put this down, there were aspects of this book that are so repelling and misguided that I can’t stand behind the book as a whole. I would love to hear other opinions from people who have read this!

VERDICT: 3 stars

Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Alexis: Read 5/11/18

“‘Tea reminds us to slow down and escape the pressures of modern life,’ he says. ”

There are some rare books out there that I just know I’ll love, and this was one of them. Okay, maybe I read it because I love tea and the reviews were good. But what other reasons do I need?

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane ended up being my top book of 2018!

The section part of the book is a fascinating, and sometimes disturbing (let’s just say I’m a twin) detailed exploration of the Akha people and their way of life. The middle is a little slower paced, but it masterfully meshes Li-yan’s Akha culture with the modern way of life in China. The last section explores Li-yan’s new life and Haley’s life in California. Haley’s life is revealed through documents, letters, and essays.

See manages to weave an epic story while also exploring China’s history, the history of tea, and what it means to be Chinese and Chinese American. She handles each of her characters with care (in their characterization, that is; they all go through some incredibly tough situations). The only character that felt out of place was Ci-teh later in the book, though I understand why she turned out the way she did.

Overall, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a beautifully written story, the core of which focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, and the promise of finding one another again.