Commonwealth (Patchett)

This is my first Patchett book, and I’m not sure why I waited this long. She’s certainly come to my attention recently because I used to live in Nashville, and she opened a bookstore there. Plus, I heard a podcast that featured her, and I was enchanted both by her and the excerpts of the novel that she read to the audience.

It is not often that I wish that a book were longer, but this novel has an inspiring sense of an epic, and I wanted more – not only in between chapters (some of the transitions can be a bit abrupt) – but at the end. Let the generations continue.

The book, which opens with the christening party that changes everything (a section I heard her read out loud), is the story of things, both planned and unplanned, both small and large, that can shift the courses of our lives in ways that we don’t anticipate or even notice, until we’re so far off course that we can’t find our way back. It is about the sins not just of the father, but of the mother and the children as well. And Fix, the father in that opening scene, realizes this at his 83rd birthday: “There’s no protecting anyone. . . Keeping people safe is a story we tell ourselves.”

This story resonated with me in all sorts of ways. Tolstoy was right:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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The Death of Ivan Ilych (Tolstoy)

I have no use for the word novella. The distinction has always seemed arbitrary to me. I’ve seen this referred to as a short novel, so I’m sticking with that.

As human beings, we tend to want things to have a logic to them. And they often don’t. In response, we are inclined to create systems (religion?) that overlay logic onto that which we can’t explain. Ivan Ilych is dying – slowly and painfully. This doesn’t make sense to him. He thinks he has lived his life well, though Tolstoy’s arch tone makes it clear that he does not approve of Ilych, his family, or his social and professional circles. They are superficial. And in his last few days of life, Ilych figures that out and utters his last words, “It is finished.” Those around him at the end think the “it” means his life. But we realize that death, which becomes an increasingly assertive character throughout this short novel, is finished. It has no more power over his mind. He is ready to let go. And so he does.

This was a quick and worthwhile read. It asks the ultimate question: how are you living your life?