Book of the Week: Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

I loved this book. In fact, I’ve loved everything Patchett has written. Sentence-by-sentence Patchett is one of the most satisfying authors writing today. I always remember the phrase a reviewer used to describe her last novel, State of Wonder: “emotionally lucid.” To that I’ll add: funny. Patchett sees the world with great warmth and humor—even in the face of conflict and crisis. Years ago John Updike said of her, “In the pessimistic halls of literary fiction, she speaks up, gently but firmly, for human potential.” It’s a beguiling combination.

In terms of plot, I really look forward to seeing what Patchett comes up because to me it seems she never writes the same thing twice. Yet in a recent PW interview she said of her books, “I’ve always been writing this story…A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a community, a family.” Hmm. That’s true, too.

While this story of a blended family might seem less exotic than the set ups for books like Bel Canto and State of Wonder, the journey into the inner lives of these ten main characters over the course of fifty years is no less complex a journey. It’s a very rewarding read that delves into themes of loyalty and betrayal, what a person’s personal story is and what happens to it as it is understood and reinterpreted by others. Most satisfyingly to me is her exploration of what happens to a personal story when it becomes public.

While it’s easy to read and love this novel merely on the level of plot, what Patchett adds to the soup in terms of texture and theme is, for me, the richest part of the read.

Review blurbs are below. If you want a more in-depth discussion of the book, click through to this interview on Parnassus Books’ web journal Musing.

 Patchett has also done a series of short videos about the book. I ran one about the book’s cover art last month. Here are the other two:

Commonwealth is September’s #1 Indie Next pick and a LibraryReads pick. Major media is in place starting with Diane Rehm the day before on sale and followed by coverage on NPR’s All Things Considered, PBS’s Newshour, The New York Times Book Review. Washington Post, Chicago Tribune. San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Entertainment weekly, Parade Magazine, USA Today and more.

Patchett draws from personal experience for a funny, sad, and ultimately heart-wrenching family portrait: a collage of parents, children, stepchildren, siblings, and stepsiblings. In 1960s California, lawyer Bert Cousins divorces Teresa, leaving her to raise their four children alone; Beverly Keating divorces Fix, an L.A. cop; and Bert and Beverly marry and relocate to Virginia with Beverly and Fix’s two children. Visiting arrangements result in an angry, resentful younger generation…until a fatal accident puts an end to shared vacations. Patchett follows the surviving children into adulthood….Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters as alliances and animosities ebb and flow, cross-country and over time. Scenes of Franny and Leo in the Hamptons and Holly and Teresa at a Zen meditation center show her at her peak in humor, humanity, and understanding people in challenging situations.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Indeed, this is Patchett’s most autobiographical novel, a sharply funny, chilling, entrancing, and profoundly affecting look into one family’s ‘commonwealth,’ its shared affinities, conflicts, loss, and love.”

“Two families are fused, atomized, and reconfigured….In her seventh work of fiction, Patchett …[turns to] the evolution of an American family over five decades….The prose is lean and inviting, but the constant shifts in point of view, the peripatetic chronology, and the ever growing cast of characters will keep you on your toes. A satisfying meat-and-potatoes domestic novel from one of our finest writers.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Nothing has made me remember the days of going through my parents’ divorce as Commonwealth.  As adults we try to understand our parents’ motives; as children we just don’t care and everything is unfair, even if you got the most.  Patchett has such a knack for fixing our attention on the slightest gestures that bring these things to life.  Step children form a tribe, not a family, and Patchett knows the difference.  No matter who is Mother, no regard for which father is present, the story is of these children and their wanderings in and out of grand love stories and messy break-ups.  It’s not one story; it’s all of them.”
— Charity McMaster, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI

Commonwealth (9780062491794) by Ann Patchett. $27.99 hardcover. 9/13/16 one day laydown.

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