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October 13, 2016

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

commonwealthI have never read Bel Canto. I don’t particularly want to read it. Your emphatic declaration of love for that book is unlikely to change my mind, but thank you for trying. I came to my admiration of Ann Patchett through the back door, via her essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (which I reviewed in the Globe and Mail a few years back) and her novel State of Wonder, which I loved. The first thing by her I ever read was Truth and Beauty years ago, and it meant a lot to me. I sincerely appreciate her multifacetedness, that one reader’s Ann Patchett is probably not another’s (and then she goes and becomes an indie bookseller on top of it all.)

Her latest novel, unsurprisingly, represents a departure from her previous work, although having read her essay collection, I was able to note the autobiographical connections. The title “Commonwealth,” as in the state of Virginia, whose own title refers to the welfare (wealth) of the people (common) who live there. Some of the book is set in Virginia, although more is set in California, and also Chicago, New York, and Amagansett. Geography offering no hindrance to the connections between six people whose lives become irrevocably connected due to circumstances set off at a christening party when Bert Cousins arrives with gin, and ends up kissing Fix Keating’s wife, the baby (Franny)’s mother, Beverly.

The first scene of this book is remarkably choreographed, truly a dance between characters, in and out of corners, conversations overheard. Momentum is swift and the writing is terrific, and we think we know what we’re being set up for. And then we’re dropped into the second chapter, near present day, Franny with her ailing father, accompanying him to his chemotherapy. So this will be a novel ducking in and out of time, whose story becomes history with the turn of a page, and the events of the first chapter are recalled with decades of perspective. We learn that Beverly left Fix for Albert, but that their own marriage didn’t pan out, and there have been subsequent spouses. We learn that the babies and the unborn babies of the first chapter have come into adulthood, for better or for worse. It’s a different tone entirely.

Chapter 3 is back to the sepia tones, and we see the two families coming together, the shaky alliances and firm divides. The marriage is never on great terms, but for better or for worse, the Keating and Cousins children are bound together but also subject to the rifts between their respective divorced parents. It’s a curious dynamic, and all the parents are too busy dealing with their own tragedies (and philandering) to pay the children the attention they properly require. Things go amok. Pills are ingested, there’s a fatal bee-sting, and a most inexplicable gun.

And then we find Franny in her early twenties, dropped out of law school and working as a cocktail waitress. She hooks up with a famous writer who we learn discovers that her family history is his muse, later writing the story into a novel (his last, a brief interruption to decades of writers’ block) called Commonwealth. Years later the novel becomes a movie that Franny and her sister take their father to at his insistence, and they all end up walking out at the unbearableness of seeing their history (however fictionalized) presented there.

My experience of the novel was initially stilted—I’d just be getting into it, and then I’d be pulled away by a shift in time, character, setting, tone and everything. Around the time Franny was working as a cocktail waitress, I wasn’t sure that the sum of the parts made sense as a whole…but eventually it started to, and soon no one was pulling the strings, it was just all working, the pieces together doing what the best novels do: showing how one thing leads to another, and that there is no better plot in all of literature than the plot of family life.

2 thoughts on “Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett”

  1. Heather says:

    Commonwealth made me cry on the Keele bus this morning. I seem to do most of my crying on the Keele bus. You should read The Magician’s Assistant. I like it much better than Bel Canto, although it is much less celebrated.

    1. Kerry says:

      I was on the Keele bus recently while reading The Break by Katherena Vermette. My eyes were watering, but that was because I kept yawning (and that was because I was tired, not because the book was boring)

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