Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
HarperCollins: 9/13/16
eBook review copy; 336 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062491794

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a very highly recommended domestic saga involving four parents and six children, and covering five decades. Commonwealth is one of the best books I have had the pleasure to read this year.

By chance, just to escape the chaos at his home, Bert Cousins leaves his wife Teresa and their 3 children at home while he attends Beverly and Fix Keating's christening party for their second daughter, Franny. He barely knows her father, Fix, but before he leaves the party he has kissed and fallen for Beverly, thus setting up the dissolution of both marriages. Bert and Beverly marry, move from California to Virginia, and merge the two families. Every summer all six children are together in Virginia, and the two Cousins girls, Caroline and Franny, join forces with the Keatings, Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie. The step-siblings form a bond and genuine affection for each other that based largely on their shared adventures and disappointment in and resentment toward their parents.

During their time in Virginia the children are left largely unsupervised and engage in some risky activities. When one of the children has an accident, the others ban together to tell all the adults the same story. They keep secret what really happened. The accident means that the shared summers have ended, although the loyalty the step-siblings feel toward each other doesn't diminish. This begs the questions: How reliable are the memories and perceptions of children? How much does a broken family affect children?

When Franny is in her mid-twenties she meets a famous writer she admires and begins an affair with him that has far reaching consequences. Author Leon Posen, who hasn't written anything for years, listens carefully to Franny's stories of her childhood and betrays her confidences when he uses them as material for a wildly successful book, (also called Commonwealth). This betrayal reaches all the step-siblings. Now the question is who owns the stories you freely share with someone you trusted?

Patchett mainly follows Franny, but all the people involved in these broken and blended families have their stories told at some point. Along with the shifting points-of-view, the narrative also jumps around in time. Starting with the christening party for Franny in the 1960's, the novel jumps to Franny going to chemo with her father, Fix, who is in his early 80's. Readers can anticipate a shifting chronology and perspective throughout this novel. It is not difficult to follow, though, and you will desperately want to know what happens next in all time periods.

As usual Patchett's writing is absolutely brilliant and totally captivating. She manages to capture the how past dramas can effect ordinary lives well into the future, but also how communicating and working together can overcome the trials. Sometimes a mature perspective can change an arbitrary and naive interpretation of events. All relationships are difficult and family drama always exists, but is there forgiveness along with the betrayals and disappointments? How would a stranger tell your story after viewing your family and your past? How would different members of your family tell their story? Patchett elegantly demonstrates that sometimes the truth is all in the telling of the story.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

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