Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique W. Morris, is another book I read because my newly-formed book group was interested in it. As it turned out, there were only two of us who showed up to discuss it. Both white, both mothers, we had no experience nor much awareness of the pushout of black girls from public schools, although it might happen near us. The book focuses on a study done in the Bay Area of California, where it seems to be a bigger or at least a more noticeable problem.
I learned a lot, like about how black girls don’t feel like they will be protected in school—a good number of them, Morris says, “are greatly affected by the stigma of having to participate in identity politics that marginalize them or place them into polarizing categories: they are either “good” girls or “ghetto” girls who behave in ways that exacerbate stereotypes about Black femininity.”
Because I do live in an ivory tower (as do the others in my book group) and maybe because I also live in a bit of a fog, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that young black girls are routinely hyper-sexualized and also subjected to what Morris calls the “angry Black woman meme—a neck-rolling, finger-in-your-face, hands-on-hips posturing” (which conjures, for me, an image of Aretha Franklin dancing in the diner in The Blues Brothers movie).
Besides the Bay Area, Morris also talks about Chicago, especially the fact that “for nearly twenty-five years, there have been children attending Chicago public schools who have never experienced school recess.” This is terrible enough by itself, but one of the girls in Morris’ study points out that “If you’re born poverty-stricken, you ain’t got no recess. The only time to talk is during lunch or after school. Y’all ain’t got no sports. Y’all ain’t got no activities. You don’t have nothin’ to be proud of at your school. You ain’t paint nothing on the walls, or participate in nothing.”
There’s a section on “the politicization (and vilification) of thick, curly, and kinky hair,” which has actually permeated my small-town consciousness, because some of the local public schools have tried to outlaw the way a friend’s two small children wear their hair (they are mixed-race, but wear afros. The little boy is in third grade, I think; he came by my office selling potted mums to raise money for the school playground. The little girl isn’t even in school yet; she’s four).
Another way the book hit home is about dress codes. As the mother of two very tall high school students, I protested vigorously every tightening of the dress codes, which of course fell disproportionately on my daughter. One time I attended a school board meeting wearing almost all the clothing they were trying to outlaw in the high school except for a short skirt. Morris reports that “when it was deemed a more serious violation of the code, such as wearing tight-fitting garb or clothing that revealed cleavage, thighs, or other parts of their bodies, girls tended to perceive its implementation as subjective and arbitrary.” No kidding. And she points out how much harder this is on black girls who are still growing and don’t have a lot of money for clothes. As so many feminists have said (but not enough, apparently), “Instead of focusing on developing a climate in which boys are taught not to touch girls’ bodies, girls are sent home to change their clothes.”
What I didn’t know is that “a U.S. Department of Education study found that 43 percent of incarcerated youth who received remedial education services in detention did not return to school after being released, and that 16 percent of these youth enrolled in school after their confinement but then dropped out after only five months. Other studies have discovered similar trends, all leading to the conclusion that detention facilities can be, and often are, harmful places.” Morris elaborates on this, saying that “Most of the girls I spoke with had experienced school suspensions, expulsions, or both prior to their confinement in juvenile hall, but what they had not expected—what was in fact counterintuitive give the stated objective of the juvenile court school to prevent dropping out—was for their suspension, removal, and general exclusion from the classroom to increase in the juvenile court school.”
Morris makes suggestions. The three I remember (maybe because they seem most relevant to my role as a citizen of a small town with a large population of children in poverty but a very small black population) are that “to eliminate the pushout and criminalization of our girls, the first step is for all those investing their time and energy in the fight for racial justice…to stop measuring the impact of the criminal legal system simply by the numbers of people who are incarcerated.” Morris also says that students should be helping to “design remedies to dress code violations that do not include suspension or being sent home” and that schools should “provide ongoing examples and models of leadership” for black girls.
It’s an eye-opening book. The part that I will remember for a long time is about a little nonsense-sounding rhyme about a sister “on the corner, sellin’ fruit cocktail” which Morris points out, and I’m sure rightly, to be about selling herself. What kind of young girls have to worry about everything potentially being about sex? How long can we give our girls before they have to face adult problems now—five years? Six? Does their entrance into school have to spell the end of their childhoods?
I really enjoyed reading The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth Mckenzie. I’d read about Stefanie’s experience with reading it, and thought that I would probably like it in a similar way–and it’s true, I did like reading it slowly and prolonging my stay in Veblen’s world for a little while. Towards the end, though, I got a little weary of the smallness of her world and what I saw as her eccentric Californian pretentions, and I finished the book and put it aside for a little while, to see how my feelings about it would ripen if I left them alone.
So it’s been a couple of weeks, and my feelings about the book are fond. It’s a nice little novel about some very interesting characters, and I found that I didn’t mind the squirrel’s-eye view of the last scene in retrospect as much as I did when I first read it. And the epilogue makes up for how small I was finding the world—evidently, the characters shared this feeling, and got out!
Veblen is an interesting and sympathetic character. “In spite of her cheerfulness in the presence of others, one could see this woman had gone through something that had left its mark. Sometimes her reactions seemed to happen in slow motion, like old, calloused manatees moving through murky water.” A lot of thoughtful people would probably describe themselves that way, so although the description goes on to talk about Veblen’s psychiatrist, it’s not hard to imagine seeing the world through her eyes.
A lot of the conversations in this novel are very interesting; just little bits and pieces, like this exchange between Veblen and Paul, her fiancée:
“’We’re old enough not to care what our parents think, but somehow we do,’ Paul admitted, philosophically.
‘That’s for sure.’
‘Because they allowed us to exist.’
She had once concluded everyone on earth was a servant to the previous generation—born from the body’s factory for entertainment and use. A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it.”
At first I was charmed by Veblen’s fondness for wildlife, especially squirrels:
“’This morning it came to the window—I think it wants to befriend me,’ Veblen said, quite naturally.
‘You can make other friends. This squirrel isn’t a character in a storybook. Real animals don’t wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young.’
‘Paul, that’s an excessively negative view of wildlife.’
I feel like I’ve had this kind of conversation before, except that I’ve never been brave enough to use the word “befriend.”
I worried that Veblen’s individuality was going to be influenced by continuing her relationship with Paul, much as any sane mother would worry (in comparison to Veblen’s fictional mother, who most definitely does not fall into the “sane” category in anyone’s book). Veblen herself worries, thinking “First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then—what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.” Ron sometimes says he gave up nuts in brownies when he married me, although I occasionally make some with nuts just for him. I will sometimes say that I gave up chopped-up grapes and sweet relish in tuna or chicken salad when I married Ron, but the truth is that I often order it when I’m out somewhere. So it seemed a minor worry, something that an engaged person might fixate on but could turn out not to be very important.
As the relationship continues, the reader gets more concerned about Veblen’s relationship with Paul, through Veblen’s mother’s attempt to find him lacking (as she had with other people throughout Veblen’s life: “They never found a soul with the same values. The moral fiber of others was always weak and frayed as far as her mother was concerned”).
As the plot progresses, though, readers find new correspondences between Veblen’s peculiarities and Paul’s, which have been better hidden. We find out about his brother and his high school science fair project, in which he attempts to replicate an occasion from when he was ten years old and thought he heard snails screaming when he had 72 of them in a bucket and was about to feed them to the chickens. We see Paul reject easy fame and fortune in favor of doing good research and telling the truth. And then finally we see Paul rescue a squirrel from certain death by throwing himself under a car in its place.
I love how Veblen realizes her love for Paul partly by remembering a concert they went to (three bars of the score are reproduced as an illustration on the page) in which she “kept waiting for the theme at the beginning to return, but it never did” and Paul said it was his favorite because of “the way it builds.” Veblen’s reaction to this memory is to think that “she’d have to listen to it again. To everything again.” Which is about as good a description of married love as I’ve ever heard.
There are some silly machinations with Veblen taking a squirrel on a car ride and spending the night in a motel with it, and Paul’s sleazy boss getting what she richly deserves from her spoiled and neglected child. And then the squirrel’s-eye-view of the ending, as I mentioned, which made the preceding action seem a bit silly and precious to me, on first reading.
The ending is of a piece, though. Lots of peculiarities and excesses in people can seem precious or even obnoxious to you if you do not care about them. That’s actually one of the points of the novel. So in the end, I was charmed by it; I allowed myself to be.
Have you allowed yourself to be charmed by anything, lately?
It was mostly Jenny’s glee over the very idea of “an in-womb fetus who is also Hamlet” at Reading the End that made me pick up Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell when I came across it. In the past, I’ve been a fan of McEwan’s writing. I loved Atonement and The Children Act and liked Sweet Tooth. This tale told by a fetus, however, was a bridge too far.
After telling how he came up with the idea for the novel, McEwan says in an interview “I’m going to get such a kicking for this. But, the more I thought that, the more I enjoyed it. I was committed from the first sentence. I just had so much fun.” So the novel itself ought to be more fun.
It isn’t, though. The conceit weighs heavy on the narrative, with the fetus making frequent references to how he knows something: “When, in the early days, she inserted her earbuds, I heard clearly, so efficiently did sound waves travel through jawbone and clavicle, down through her skeletal structure, swiftly through the nourishing amniotic. Even television conveys most of its meager utility by sound. Also, when my mother and Claude meet, they occasionally discuss the state of the world, usually in terms of lament, even as they scheme to make it worse.”
The fun of the fetus being like Hamlet, unable to act—in this case literally, because he isn’t born yet—is muted by his ponderous musings:
“So, getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux—is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sein. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems. My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.”
Fetus Hamlet’s father is a sensitive poet while his uncle Claude is a shallow, money-grubbing real estate type. From this, I guess we deduce the author’s own idea of who should rule, and who is the criminal who would overthrow such rightful rule. The fetus also articulates what I presume to be McEwan’s own view of the United States: “Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun.”
There is way too much description of drinking, with the fetus spewing out long and unlikely reviews of wines, like “the spicy cassis and black cherry…the hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.” There is so much to give the author a kicking over here, and so little fun in asking questions like what the hell can a fetus know about the next room?
Also there is way, way too much description of late, third-trimester sex between the fetus’ mother Trudy and her lover Claude. Other reviews (yes, I read some to determine if anyone has yet given McEwan the kicking he deserves, and I concluded not) have made much of lines like “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” but it seems to me that no one has yet adequately conveyed how repellent the sex is, how often it happens, and how much this weighs down a reader’s progress through the book. Maybe we’re supposed to feel the grossness of Claude’s hands “paddling in her neck,” or wherever, but mostly what I felt was weariness and disgust at the repetition.
The little jabs at current events fall just as flat as the long, still moments after the kick of a little foot from inside, when an expectant father or friend stands there with his hand on the still and stretched belly, waiting. When a fetus pronounces that “If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation,” it is pretty clearly not the fetus himself speaking.
The task of reading this short novel is arduous. Do not undertake it. There is not enough fun to be had.
In an essay called “The Lighter Side of the End of the World, Jeannine Hall Gailey explains why she started writing the poems in Field Guide to the End of the World:
“When I started writing my latest book, Field Guide to the End of the World, I was thinking of the grimness of the news footage, politics, civil wars…even the weather reports sounded frightening, with their floods and snowpocalypse, the occasional meteor passing close by the earth. The grimness of today’s YA literature and movies, in which every government is sinister, every adult is out to steal your blood or control your mind and life isn’t about happy endings, but rather a set of confusing and meaningless experiments run by shadow organizations. The dour headlines of scientific news: endless stories of killer antibiotic-resistant germs, global warming, that we’re heading for a sixth extinction, also inspired more than one poem.”
The idea of a “field guide,” that there will be a need and there is still a person left to take notes, is kind of funny all by itself. In the title poem, “Field Guide to the End of the World,” we’re told that “The Kingdom may already be at hand. Marshal your resources.” Being able to see when the end begins is a matter of perspective, and maybe survival.
In “Martha Stewart’s Guide to Apocalypse Living,” we get recommendations for going out gracefully, ending with “Now’s the time to get out your hurricane lamps! They create a lovely glow in/these last days.”
There’s a fan letter to a movie star, “Letter to John Cusack, Piloting a Plan in an Apocalypse Movie” which includes the realization that “I suppose we must finally shed our black trench coats and bad attitudes, because why be subversive anymore? We must create our own shiny new future, maybe featuring spaceships.”
My favorite part of Gailey’s premise is that it’s the end of the world for every kind of being, not just mortals. One of the best poems in the volume is about what is happening to vampires as the world ends:
Introduction to Teen Girl Vampires
They turn feral while defending their human boyfriends, harmless and blond
in Varsity jackets and crew-cuts. These girls just want to be loved, and fed,
in that order, and can we blame them? A nurse here or there won’t be missed,
or the guy playing “second policeman.” Bram Stoker equated blood and sex,
Mina chaste and clever while hunting her Dracula down, his bite awaking
impulses that ignited and were ignored. These days, teen vampire girls enjoy sex
with abandon, tossing lovers around like tree limbs. These days, the girl
doesn’t succumb to the monster, she is the monster, teeth gleaming in the moonlight,
coquettish limbs and curls masking superpowers. Oh, she still wants to be
the prettiest girl at the prom, and perhaps she mourns some future idea
of motherhood. But men line up for the promise of her bite, her blood.
And she has nothing to fear; she cannot be broken, tarnished by age, her heart
impenetrable to anything except for that wooden stake.
The poems are not only about survival. In “Introduction to Time Travel Theory,” we get a list of the reasons we should want to go on living, “to explore our ‘what if’ Imaginariums, to wormhole our way/out of problems and ensure the miracle of our own birth,/the end of the war that destroys our planet.” What we love is also listed, like the poem’s reference to the running joke in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel about “the universe in which there are no shrimp.” And hope is on the list, like everyone’s secret hope that soon “alternate-future-you rides a dragon into a time loop/or carries a samurai sword engraved with an important code/only you will be able to decipher.”
Some of the poems are more personal, about the disconcerting failures of the speaker’s body: “If my own light is burning out, then it feels right/that the earth should too.” Some are about living in California: “I’ve gone all the way to the edge, you see, where they grow/oranges and avacadoes and the sun always shines.” A few are about dreams: “we dream of robots, of zombies, of plagues and comets,/of tidal waves that wipe out our world. We dream of the end/because we long to disappear.”
Near the end of the volume, I enjoyed the humor of “But It Was An Accident,” which begins with:
“Yes, I was the one who left out the open petri dishes of polio and plague next to the pasta.
I leaked the nuclear codes, the ones on the giant floppy disks from 1982.
I feel asleep at the button. I ordered tacos and turned out the lights. How I was I to know that someone was waiting for the right time?
I thought the radio was saying ‘Alien attack’ and headed for the fallout shelter, and failed to feed the dogs.
I followed evacuation plans. I just followed orders.”
In “Remnant,” we get “those tubes/of sunlight that show up on the path, lighting the way” while in “The End of the Future” we see that children “have been taught to fear everything—salmonella in the peanut butter,/allergens in the air, the creepy guy next door who, let’s face it, probably/is a pervert.”
The volume has an “Epilogue: A Story for After,” in which “There are no more shotguns or dusty trails lined with diseased corpses. A ship arrives on top of a mountain, heralded by doves, an airplane lands on another planet, seatmates dazed by the lack of gravity.”
It’s like the ending of Shelley’s “Ozymandius” has been reimagined, the eternal truth made new again with the addition of modern images and allusions and by paying close attention to “what fools these mortals be.”
Reading Becky Chambers’ new space opera novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is like being reunited with some of the characters you loved most in Firefly except that most of these characters aren’t human, or even “Exodan,” which is a different strain of our species in this fiction. There’s the Zoe character, except she’s named Sissix and from an affectionate lizard-type race. There’s a Shepherd Book character, with a mysterious badass episode in his past, except that he’s among the last of a dying giant caterpillar race and instead of a preacher, he’s the doctor and chef. There’s a Kaylee character named Kizzy. The captain of the ship, Ashby Santoso, is a Mal figure but without Serenity Valley in his past and with a secret alien lover. We’re introduced to this crew, the crew of a spaceship called The Wayfarer, when Rosemary, a woman with a past she is trying to hide (the Simon Tam character), joins them. She is escorted around the ship by the Jayne character, a guy named Corbin who has no social graces but is good at keeping their algae alive, the fuel for the ship.
There are characters from other science fiction universes, too. Kizzy has a partner who is also a spaceship mechanic, Jenks, and he is physically different from everyone else because his mother was part of a group of humans who refused alterations to her offspring. Jenks falls in love with the ship’s computer, Lovelace, who is a version of Heinlein’s Dora, only much less silly (since she was written in the 21st century). The navigator, Ohan, is straight out of Frank Herbert’s Dune, except instead of being addicted to spice, “they” have exposed themselves to a virus that helps them see how to fold space.
So it’s all slightly familiar, while the conversations and adventures are delightfully alien. In an early conversation with Sissix, Rosemary reveals the fact that she’s never eaten a very common kind of bug, and thinks:
“She felt guilty just saying it. Insects were cheap, rich in protein and easy to cultivate in cramped rooms, which made them an ideal food for spacers. Bugs had been part of the Exodus Fleet’s diet for so long that even extrasolar colonies still used them as a main staple. Rosemary had, of course, at least heard of red coast bugs. The old story went that a short while after the Exodus Fleet had been granted refugee status within the Galactic Commons, a few Human representatives had been brought to some Aeluon colony to discuss their needs. One of the more entrepreneurial Humans had noticed clusters of large insects skittering over the red sand dunes near the coastline. The insects were a mild nuisance to the Aeluons, but the Humans saw food, and lots of it. Red coast bugs were swiftly adopted into the Exodans’ diet, and nowadays you could find plenty of Aeluons and extrasolar Humans who had become wealthy from their trade. Rosemary’s admission that she’d never eaten red coast bugs meant that she was not only poorly traveled, but that she belonged to a separate chapter of Human history. She was a descendant of the wealthy meat eaters who had first settled Mars, the cowards who had shipped livestock through space while nations starved back on Earth.”
I like the details about the universe Chambers has created. I like it when Kizzy sings a song she calls “Socks Match My Hat” and we find out that it’s prohibited in the Harmagian Protectorate because it’s actually called “Soskh Matsh Mae’ha” and it’s about “banging the Harmagian royal family.”
I like the way Jenks is critical of an organization that calls itself “Friends of Digital Sapients” because “they didn’t have a lot of techs in their ranks. They ignored the actual science behind artificial cognition in favor of a bunch of fluffy nonsense, making AIs out to be organic souls imprisoned within metal boxes. AIs weren’t like that.”
I like the explanation of how the Wayfarer makes tunnels through space, and the picture of what could happen if this went wrong:
“The Kaj’met Expanse was a Harmagian territory, half the size of the Sol system, in which space had been completely rent asunder. The pictures from there were terrifying—asteroids drifting into invisible holes, planets snapped in half, a dying star leaking into a debris-crusted tear.”
And I like the way some of the aliens are really alien, like the Aeluons, who
“lacked a natural sense of hearing, and had no need for a spoken language of their own. Among themselves, they communicated through color—specifically, iridescent patches on their cheeks that shimmered and shifted like the skin of a bubble.”
The adventure begins when the Wayfarer and her crew accept a tunneling job that takes them through newly-opened space. They get fired on and boarded by Akarak space pirates, and are saved when Rosemary knows enough about their culture to bargain with them and enough of a language they speak (Hanto) to communicate with them.
After the space pirate incident, they land on a planet in order to buy some shields and weapons, and meet “modders” who have modified their bodies in order to perform specialized tasks. Kizzy discovers hidden bombs on a spaceship docked with the Wayfarer and defuses every one. Sissix rescues Corbin from a Quelin prison, and Corbin later saves Ohan’s life, against their will.
The ending, which begins winding up within sight of the “small, angry planet,” is a mess of overheard conversation, suspicious aliens, a last-minute getaway, and the death of one of the crew members.
I liked reading the book so much I stayed up late to finish it. My only complaint is that Kizzy started to get on my nerves after a while–she does things calculated to make her about 500 times cuter than Kaylee, like knitting hats for little helper bots…just too precious. Also she eats all the time but never gains weight or offends anyone else with her crumbs or her greed. Perhaps I’m agreeing with Jenny that the way these characters get along is too good to be true. But hey, it is fiction, and a very pleasant, cozy kind—at least in between alien attacks.
For the past two years, I’ve gone twice a week to the local hospital’s “Center for Rehabilitation and Wellness” pool for a water aerobics class. I’m starting my third year, and have seen a lot of different women come and go. Yes, they’re mostly women, mostly menopausal or older, mostly plumper than they’d probably like, mostly gorgeous when they abandon their self-consciousness, forget their chronic pains in the buoyancy of the water, and move in ways they haven’t thought about in years—skipping, hopscotch, cross-country skiing.
Every once in a while, I see one of them fully dressed, walking a half-filled cart down the aisle at Kroger or carrying a loaded tray past my table at Panera. I don’t always recognize them at first, but sometimes, as they pass, I look back and remember where I’ve seen them.
I was re-reading a book of poems by Dorianne Laux that I’d first read in 2011 because I recently found a used copy, and this one stood out to me, on re-reading:
The Secret of Backs
Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.
The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim seams worried to white threads.
And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.
And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.
And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,
broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.
And the spiral near the top of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy—as if the first breach
swirled each filament away from that startled center.
Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.
And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.
Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.
I know that I should apply what I think about the appearance of the other menopausal women in the class to myself, but it’s not easy. I like this poem because it suggests that the one thing anyone can do is to turn her back and keep skipping or hop-scotching, not to get ahead, but to be able to stay in the same place for longer.
I thought Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder showed that she had reached her peak as a writer, so perhaps it’s inevitable that I would see her new novel Commonwealth as the start of a slow descent from that peak.
Partly it’s just the subject matter. How can a story that originates in suburban Virginia compete with a story in which we get taken into the jungle? The “jungle” in suburban Virginia is metaphorical, sure, but it’s less mysterious and wonderful.
The title Commonwealth is all kinds of symbolic as it’s about six children from two blended families, the trouble they got up to one summer, and how that summer affected the rest of their lives.
The children are not closely supervised during their summers together, and the novel takes a judgmental tone towards that because the children do. They resent being thrown together and they believe their parents should wake up from their sexual daze and see how their actions have affected their offspring. The parents don’t, however, and the offspring have entire days to go off on their own. From their very first outing, they give Benadryl to the youngest so he won’t slow them down and then:
“the five of them swam out farther than they would have been allowed to had the parents been with them. Franny and Jeanette went to look for caves and were taught to fish by two men they met standing off by themselves in a grove of trees on the shore. Cal stole a package of Ho-Ho’s from the bait shop and had no need to use the gun in the paper bag because no one saw him do it. Caroline and Holly climbed to the top of a high rock and leapt into the lake again and again and again.”
There are lots of little close-ups of people that readers will recognize. I recognized some of the ones of an old man getting treatments at a hospital and talking to his daughter—not because of conversations with my father, but with my mother. He tells a story about a man he worked with and says, anticipating her reaction, “can you imagine the lawsuits people would file if someone did that now?” He feels irritated by the daughter’s appearance, thinking that she looked like her mother “but without Beverly’s sense of knowing what to do with her looks….He knew people here, sometimes his doctor came by during treatment. She could have made an effort.”
There are little details that you may recognize too, like this one:
“Just then the lights came down two settings. Heinrich always shut down the night too abruptly, turning the lights so low so fast that it felt like a straight fall into darkness. Every time it happened she had a split second of wondering if something small and important had ruptured inside her head.”
Living in wet and green Ohio at this time of year, I appreciated the description of Virginia as a place where “the world had been rendered deep and lush and essentially fireproof. In Virginia people stored wood in the garage in the hopes that one day it would be dry enough to burn.”
There’s a metafictional turn to the novel when the youngest child discovers that the fictional novel Commonwealth, written by Leo Posen (inside the actual novel Commonwealth, written by Ann Patchett) tells the story of the six children and the summer when they’d given all the Benadryl to him and there was none left when it was needed.
It’s an inventive tale about shifting loyalties and the ownership of the stories we tell. I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it’s as captivating and wonderful as the last one she wrote. Commonwealth goes on sale tomorrow, and I thank HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy.