Book Reviews: Commonwealth and Hag-Seed

I’ve almost completed my reading list for January! If you haven’t checked that list out, it’s posted here.

The only book I have left to read is All the Light We Cannot See, which I’m very excited to finally read.

I’ve decided that I’m going to post at least 2 book reviews each month, and I plan on reviewing books I have the most to talk about. I LOVED The Bronze Horseman (a historical fiction that takes place in Soviet Russia), and I may do a short blurb on it, but I’ve decided to focus on these two books instead.

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

4.5/5 stars

This is a contemporary novel that debuted in September 2016. The novel spans five decades, following the intertwined lives of two families, brought together by an affair, a separation, and several remarriages.

What most intrigued me while I was reading this novel, was how the various connections between the siblings and step-siblings played out throughout the years. The step-siblings only ever spend a handful of summers together, but their actions and relationships have a lasting effect on everyone around them. Caroline and Franny Keating are sisters, the daughters of Fix and Beverly Keating. Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins are the children of Bert and Teresa Cousins. When Bert and Beverly begin and affair and then marry for several years, the six children become family, until that marriage dissolves as well.

There is an especially poignant moment towards the end of the novel, when Franny Keating cares for Teresa Cousins, in her old age. What an interesting coupling–Teresa is the mother of Franny’s ex-stepsiblings. Teresa and Franny had only ever seen each other once, at a funeral decades ago. The two are basically strangers, but Franny spends Teresa’s final moments with her, and when a nurse asks about their relationship, Franny calls Teresa her step-mother, even though there is no name for what Teresa really is to her. But Teresa is the mother to people Franny loves and sees as brothers and sisters and that’s enough to deeply connect two strangers.

The story is a nonlinear one. Each chapter dances between decades as Patchett slowly reveals more and more about the sibling’s lives. We learn that while in her twenties, Franny dates a famous novelist who writes a book based on the lives of her and her extended family. This fills her with regret, because she has given away a deeply personal story that may not be hers to tell, one that focuses on her ex-stepsiblings and once the story is out there is a struggle and an examination on the ownership of stories and memory.

“All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for. All”

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Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

4/5 stars

The Tempest by William Shakespeare tells a tale of magic, fantasy, desire and revenge. Hag-Seed is such a layered retelling of the tempest, it is a play within a play. The book itself parallels The Tempest: Our main character, Felix is cunningly wronged and deposed of by a power-seeking individual. He is ousted as the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival after a praised career. His wife and daughter have both tragically died, and at that moment he is betrayed by his protege who stages a coup and has Felix fired and physically removed from the theater. Felix than completely disappears from the world and spends years living in a shack, growing mad all whilst planning and obsessing over his growing plot for revenge. His daughter, Miranda, has now been dead for 12 years, but she grows up with him in that shack, and ever more real ghost he resurrects as his companion.

A decade into his obsession on revenge, he creates a new identity and gains a job as a teacher at a correctional facility. Years go by as he teaches the Literacy Through Theater class, until the time comes for him to produce The Tempest and enact his revenge. The reader gets to see the production The Tempest and the progression of Felix’s madness.

Hag-Seed is a fun read. It is dark and dramatic, and it pulls you in to Felix’s plot. You both understand him and hope for him, but you also understand that he cannot sustain this life he has carved out for himself, that Miranda cannot be tethered to him forever. I also found the chapter length to be a great set-up. Most chapters are only three pages long which allowed for quick reading and I felt it really fit the feel of the book (it made it more play-like). I would really recommend this to both fans of The Tempest and people who were never able to get into Shakespeare, because this is a really accessible way to jump in.

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Book Review: When We Collided

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When We Collided by Emery Lord

2.5/5

First of all, let me just say: I have read three books in five days and it’s such a rush! I read this one in one day, a sci-fi book the day before, and a graphic novel today. I also started reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore this morning and if I finish it on Monday, I may throw a party.

Okay, on to reviewing this book. The 2.5 stars means I was stuck between “it was okay” and “I liked it.” That pretty much sums up my opinion. I went into reading this book knowing that it would be a quick, light-hearted summer read. And it was, kind of. The story switches perspectives between Vivi and Noah, two high schoolers who have had their share of tragedy. It’s set in a fictional California beach town, Verona Cove. Vivi is there vacationing with her artist mother and Jonah is struggling under the weight of caring for his younger siblings after his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent depression.

Parts of the book that I liked: Love was not this all-consuming, soulmate thing. We love and we move on and we love again. Great stuff. Also, I found the beginning of Viv’s mental breakdown to be very realistic.

I just don’t know. Also, there were a lot of one-dimensional characters that I wished were more defined. The male protagonist, Jonah Daniels’ whole family were really interesting but we never got to know more about them besides one character trait each and that they were sad over their father’s death. Another issue was the set-up of plot-points. There is a point early on in the novel when Ivi purchases a type of motorcycle and you just know what’s going to happen, and of course, it does.

I guess this is my final thought: Vivi suffers from mental illness. (Spoiler alert because I don’t think the reader is meant to know one of these going in) Vivi has depression and is bipolar. And her not taking her medications starts her on a downward spiral and she is unkind to the people who love her. It is real and ugly and for the most part, Lord writes Vivi’s frantic actions and words and increasingly disconnected inner dialogue really well. But the overall presentation of the romance and the neat ending do not fit with the story of issues of mental health, and that’s what left me feeling less than thrilled with the book.