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Monday, September 26, 2016

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06249179-4
Hardcover, $27.99, 336 pages

I can vividly remember reading Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto on my front porch one summer. I was mesmerized by her stunning story of a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country, and how I just fell into the book and didn't come out until the end.

Her last novel, State of Wonder, about a research scientist who goes to the Amazon to search for her missing mentor, also brought me into a completely new world, one I wouldn't know that much about or even dream I would be interested in.

Her newest novel is set closer to her own home. Commonwealth is the story of a blended family- a man with four young children leaves his wife and marries a woman with two children. (This happened to Patchett's family.) How that comes about, and the repercussions of the man kissing a woman who is not his wife at a neighborhood party, makes for a story that may be more relatable to most people.

Albert is a district attorney in Southern California in the 1960's. He goes to a christening party for the daughter of Fix, a police officer he doesn't know well, and becomes enchanted with Fix's beautiful wife Bev. He kisses Bev and soon leaves his wife and children and takes Bev and her two daughters to Virginia to live.

The opening scene of the party is brilliantly done. Fix the cop describes DA's as "the guys who smoked your cigarettes because they were trying to quit." Soon Albert is not only smoking Fix's cigarettes, he has stolen Fix's wife Bev.

Years later, Fix tells his adult daughter Franny that Bev "didn't have her own character. She turned into whoever she was sitting next to. When she was sitting next to Miss Free Love then free love sounded like a great idea."

The story spans five decades, and we see the children grow from six children thrown together in summers in Virginia to adults, all bearing the scars of a childhood that included a tragedy most of them never got over.

Franny, the baby at the christening, grew up and met Leo Posen, a famous novelist who falls in love with her. She tells Leo her family's tale and he turns it into his comeback novel titled 'Commonwealth'. Franny is staying with Leo at the home of a wealthy actress in the Hamptons, and ends up acting as servant to the many people who decide to descend uninvited, including her younger stepbrother Albie, who comes to confront her about the book.

There are many characters in this moving story, and Patchett excels at crystalizing each one in a few scenes. A book that covers five decades of a family could easily clock in at over 600 pages, but Patchett manages to create this world in just over 300 pages.

Fix was my favorite character in the book, an honorable man who loves his children and even shows great kindness to Albert's first wife when she needed it. I also loved that Albert's first wife picked herself up and got a great job to support her family when her husband left her.

Commonwealth is based on Patchett's family, and Franny is her doppleganger. Patchett has said in interviews about the book that she spoke to all of her siblings about the book, getting their blessing to tell the story. I'm not sure how many families would be OK with that. As I read the book I kept thinking, "what would a book about your childhood look like?"

I think perhaps she felt the time was right to write this intensely personal book, one so close to home. At one point Frannie and her sister Caroline are riding in the car with their ailing father and Frannie thinks of Fix:
"All the stories go with you, Frannie thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn't listen to, won't remember, never got right, wasn't around for."
I think that line sums up Patchett's place in her life, one that many middle-aged people are dealing with as well. You get to a certain point in life and you contemplate how you got to where you are, and how your family played such a big role in that.

Commonwealth is not a story that you race through to finish. It's one to savor and ponder, and upon reflection I liked it much more a week or so after I finished it than when when I closed the book. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Ann Patchett's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 13th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 14th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, September 15th: Vox Libris
Friday, September 16th: Art @ Home
Friday, September 16th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, September 20th: Books on the Table
Wednesday, September 21st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, September 22nd: Luxury Reading
Thursday, September 22nd: Tina Says…
Monday, September 26th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, September 28th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, September 29th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, October 3rd: Fictionophile
Tuesday, October 4th: Literary Quicksand
Wednesday, October 5th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Thursday, October 6th: Lit and Life
Friday, October 7th: The Well-Read Redhead

Ann Patchett's website is here.

1 comment:

  1. The intensely personal nature of this book makes me think it would be a very impactful book for me to read.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!