Readers partial to family sagas or collections of interlocking narratives will love Ann Patchett’s masterful Commonwealth (HarperCollins, $27.99). Taking up different points of view, with reports that sometimes contradict each other, the novel begins with Franny Keating’s christening party, which turns into a drinking party when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. But the event has an unexpected outcome, launching a chain of events that leads to the breakup of two marriages and the creation of a blended family. Over the years, one child dies, the others grow up. Reaching adulthood, Franny Keating becomes romantically involved with a writer who bases his successful novel, Commonwealth, on her family’s experiences. Has he stolen Franny’s story? Has he stolen the whole family’s story, or has he only used key events to craft a narrative of his own? Many chapters of this tale might easily stand alone as short stories; instead, Patchett has crafted a novel spanning several generations and offering different perspectives on a single painful truth. This novel poses the questions of who a narrative belongs to and what is or isn’t appropriation, issues that Patchett knows well from the real life controversy about her memoir, Truth and Beauty.
The devil’s in the details of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (Doubleday, $26.95). Taking direction from American slave narratives, the novel confronts the linked heritage of slaveocracy and democracy seeking to ensnare the fugitive teenage orphan, Cora. Cora’s flight from a Georgia plantation and from the slave catcher, Ridgeway, propels her towards fleeting notions of freedom on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. As a subversive text, the novel undermines historical fiction with its fantastic literal dimension of locomotives, train tracks, and subterranean stations; it also outdoes the historical Underground Railroad’s metaphorical network of passageways, covert conductors, and secret safe houses. Colson’s ornate craft deftly depicts America’s reign of terror, inspiring reconciliation.
What if today was the day that you decided to turn your life around? Make the small changes you always wanted to, in order to become the woman you always wished you could be? Maria Semple’s protagonist Eleanor Flood, upon waking one morning, makes that promise to herself in Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown, $27). But, then, life has a way of charting its own course. Eleanor, a former cartoon illustrator, is attempting to resurrect her memoir from the depths of a creativity block. Over the course of one day, Eleanor is confronted with a former coworker who brings up some repressed secrets, a (faking) sick child finding his own identity, and a husband who has been skipping work behind her back for the past week. It is a novel that is light-hearted and quirky, while quietly raising the stakes throughout the day. Fans of Semple’s previous hit, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, will love and identify with Eleanor’s struggles to maintain balance between a creative career, raising a child, and keeping a marriage fresh and exciting.