I'm closing out my 2016 reviews with recommendations for the two books I read in December:
→ COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett starts with an adulterous kiss at a christening party that breaks up two marriages, creating a new family of stepsiblings united only in resenting their parents. I'm hesitant even to share that brief summary, because the kiss and almost everything that happens in this novel emerges as an unanticipated development. The story jumps back and forth across decades, presenting big and small moments in the lives of the characters as they navigate family dynamics, growing up and growing old, and the problems of remembering and retelling shared experiences.
I am in awe of the way this novel manages to convey the story of an increasingly sprawling family by focusing on a small set of incidents that often aren't the scenes I expected to play out. While the reader gets to spend more time with some characters than others, each family member is portrayed as a full and nuanced individual. I especially enjoyed seeing how various siblings and parents clashed or connected and watching these relationships change over time. This family felt real and unique, and I cared about everyone's fate, so the novel delivered all that I hope for (but don't always find) in a family drama.
Patchett is an incredible writer at every level. Her sentences are crammed with well-observed detail, but the casual, comfortable language always provides a smooth reading experience. Even at serious moments, Patchett teases out the humor in mundane human behavior and interactions. I was impressed by the deft handling of the book's idiosyncratic structure, which frequently skips past major events and then gradually fills in the details of what happened. Like so much in this novel, the manner in which the story unfolds was a delightful surprise.
Commonwealth joins my list of favorite family stories, and I heartily recommend it to other fans of the genre. If you've read it already, I suggest this Bookworm interview in which Patchett discusses her decisions in crafting the novel as a whole and some specific scenes.
→ THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen opens at the end of the Vietnam War, as Saigon falls, or is liberated, depending on perspective. Those different perspectives are at the core of the novel, because the narrator acts as an officer of the Republic of Vietnam's National Police while secretly serving as an agent of the communist Viet Cong. During the attack on the capital, he escapes and resettles in Los Angeles, where he previously attended college and studied American culture. Once in the US, our protagonist continues living a divided life, working in the Department of Oriental Studies at Occidental College (a dichotomy not lost on him) and conducting covert operations for both sides of the Vietnamese conflict.
There's a lot happening on every page of this novel, particularly inside the narrator's head. As he announces at the start, he's "a man of two minds," and much of the story explores how a person (as well as a country) can cope with duality. Plotwise, a lot also takes place, including some extremely tense and intensely violent scenes, but the events are spaced apart by more cerebral sections and somewhat detached from each other. Though I found the slow pace a challenge at times, most of the book kept me fascinated.
The novel is packed with cleverly constructed sentences that often take a darkly funny turn. Some gems: "Over the next few days, we wept and we waited. Sometimes, for variety, we waited and we wept." "I barely even had the opportunity to sleep, since a sleeper agent is almost constantly afflicted with insomnia." "She cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary." I look forward to reading more of Nguyen's great writing in his upcoming story collection, THE REFUGEES.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ A few months back, Emily St. John Mandel crunched the numbers at FiveThirtyEight on books with "girl" in the title: "A number of patterns emerged in our analysis: The 'girl' in the title is much more likely to be a woman than an actual girl, and the author of the book is more likely to be a woman. But if a book with 'girl' in the title was written by a man, the girl is significantly more likely to end up dead."
→ This week, Adrian Liang of The Amazon Book Review points out a hopeful new trend (also mentioned by Mandel), books with "woman" in the title: "I sometimes have this horrible suspicion that, consciously or no, a book title is whispering, 'Read about "girls." They're less troublesome than women.' ... More troublesome 'women,' please." (Thanks, Book Riot!)