Annalisa Quinn

Eily is 18, Irish, just barely removed from the "dun school skirts" of early life. She arrives in London — alive with "traffic all gadding in the midday shine" and "pigeons at infernal coo" — to audition for drama school. She is young, but as she steps into character, the judges can see that "in her I've done my time." She gets in, and starts a new life in grimy Camden of the 1990s: "Here I am and here is for me."

Chekhov is supposed to have said that if you show a loaded gun on stage, it has to go off. Ann Patchett's new novel, Commonwealth, is full of guns that don't fire.

There are more dumb Shakespeare adaptations on heaven and earth, dear readers, than are dreamed of in your performance studies seminars.

I have seen (fatal vision!) an all-nude Macbeth, a Wild West Romeo and Juliet, a Soviet Lear, a Basquiat Hamlet and one painful "Oriental"-themed Tempest (think gongs and kimonos). I have stood in a room while Lady Macbeth dropped single marbles on the floor for minutes on end, seen another smear herself in chocolate syrup.

Count Alexander Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt — is a "Former Person." Russia's new Soviet masters have sentenced him, improbably enough, to house arrest in Moscow's luxurious Metropol hotel, where he lives out his days decorating the dining room with his bon mots and dashing around like Eloise, if Eloise were set in a twee version of Stalinist Russia.

"Every path that leads to new victories is lined with crosses of the dead," wrote one early practitioner of proto-lobotomies. Luke Dittrich's new book asks: How many lives does a medical breakthrough cost? "By the middle of the twentieth century," Dittrich writes, "the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical." But were "all those asylums, all those lesions, all those broken men and women," worth what we now know about the human brain?

Over time, family stories calcify into mythology: They are repeated, enshrined, made emblematic. Moments that, in retrospect, predict character. Fights that become the fights. The time you threw up, crashed the car, found mom's pot.

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