Ellen’s Pick of the Week: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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“One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother Beverley, thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.”

Thus begins Commonwealth,  Ann Patchett’s seventh and most autobiographical novel to date. Like its first two sentences, Commonwealth contains depth and delivers subtle bombshells which yield unintended consequences that resonate throughout the lives of the characters.

In a recent interview, Patchett explained that she feels as if she’s been telling the same story over and over again: “ a story of strangers who are thrown together by circumstance and form lasting bonds.” Commonwealth is a domestic version of this same story based loosely on her own parents’ divorce, subsequent cross-country move and growing up with step-siblings.

After the eventful christening party, Franny and her older sister move from California to Virginia with Bert and his new wife Beverley where they spend unsupervised summers with Cousins’ four children from his first marriage,  step-siblings who are really strangers. Commonwealth is the story of these two families, their uneasy alliances throughout their lives and the accidental death of their brother, an event about which they all feel guilty. In a meta twist, adult Franny falls in love with an older author who mines her life for a comeback novel which turns into a bestseller and then a movie—-which, as you might imagine, does not go over very well with some of the members of her extended family. Patchett imagined herself as both Franny and the author.

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Ann Patchett

I love stories about families and how their relationships morph as the children grow into adults. Commonwealth was a completely satisfying domestic novel, but Patchett doesn’t always allow the reader the comfort of knowing how will things turn out. The annoying little brother doesn’t necessarily grow up to become a loser.  As in real life, Patchett’s characters are more complicated than the familiar tropes of popular literature.

I appreciated Commonwealth even more after I sat down to write about it. Patchett tells a complicated story in a compelling way and challenges her readers to see her characters as complex individuals whose actions aren’t predictable.  This would be an excellent book for a book group because each reader would bring a unique understanding of its events. This is not a light beach read, but a thoughtful story about families and the unforeseen outcomes of their actions. Highly recommended.

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