For as long as I have known of myself, I have known that I loved to read. Growing up, I was strongly encouraged to read biographies and inspirational works. In high school, I was exposed to the novel and I majored in English at a small university. I focused my electives on historical literature (Shakespeare, Austen, etc.) and work that if not true, held historical significance.
I never took modern fiction or read any modern novels. True to form, memoirs, selfhelp, with an occasional chick lit pick to break up the monotony, was the order of my literary life.
So when, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett was suggested as a pick for the book club, I was scared of it. Ann is a serious novelist, a literary novelist. And while her writing is beautiful and prosaic I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it and I was pretty sure that it would go over my head. I began reading with these preconceptions and you guessed it, I didn’t like it.
My Beef with Commonwealth
The story-line jumped around and I found it almost impossible to keep up with who was who and what was happening. And what was the bit with all the oranges? True, they are gorgeous on the cover and yes, they are mentioned in the first scene of the novel but did they have significance? It was a bit high-brow for me and I’m the English major. It’s embarrassing to admit but I read it to get it over with. Until about page 245 which, by the way, is three-quarters of the way through the novel.
That’s when I began to relate to the character of Franny.
You see up until this point, I couldn’t relate to the story. In numerous interviews, Ann has said that this novel is her most personal one to-date. Somewhat autobiographical in many ways. Ann’s parents got divorced when she was young and her mother remarried someone who already had four children and they moved to the other side of the country. Her father also passed away as she was writing the novel. That is not the case for me. I come from a traditional nuclear family. Both of my parents are still alive.
My Reconciliation with Commonwealth
That’s when it dawned on me; something that as an English major, I should have known long time ago. The beauty of art, any kind of art be it writing, painting, music, etc. is that we, the reader, the viewer, the listener find the meaning and the beauty of each thing for ourselves. It truly is “in the eye of the beholder.” Truly great art not only speak to us on a personal level but also teaches us about the shared humanity of us all.
Once I began to relate to Franny, I began to care about her and the characters surrounding her. Perhaps, therein lies the lesson. We can only truly care about others until we come to know and experience their lives. We can do this by getting to know people with different experiences. And if we can’t physically reach particular persons with particular experiences, truly great books can make up that difference.
Here’s to great novels. Here’s to Commonwealth.
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