Author: Ann Patchett
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, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.
When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.
Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.
Commonwealth‘s biggest strength, for me, is Ann Patchett’s beautiful writing. I haven’t actually read any other books by her but I think after reading Commonwealth I would like to, though I felt that this was quite a strange book, all in all!
There are so many characters introduced and included that my head was spinning trying to remember not only who everyone was but how they related to each other. I often had to flick backwards to try and work this out. There are so many different elements to the various families involved, because Beverley remarries several times, as do other characters, and there are of course the many children included too!
Another confusing element for me was the jumps in time. Now, I love books that switch from one time to another, but this seemed to do so with absolutely no warning or indication that it was going to change. Therefore I would get ridiculously far into a chapter / paragraphs without realising it had gone back or forward in time, and then a small detail would make me realise. It left me feeling quite disorientated – the way the children (and indeed many of the adult characters) must have felt at times, so perhaps this was in some ways intentional?
There were also huge pieces of information that is never provided which I really wanted to know! I felt the novel needed a bit more time set aside for it. Regardless, though, it made some parts of the book quite difficult and slow to read, so I didn’t speed through Commonwealth at the rate I often do with other books.
As I continued through the story, my slight niggles with the seemingly endless characters and narrative jumps eased off a bit, and I began to appreciate more and more the amazing writing, which was – as previously mentioned – just wonderful. Patchett includes some fantastic imagery and metaphors, but without ever overdoing it. Commonwealth leaves you feeling like you’ve read something written to a truly high standard, but understatedly so, if that makes sense.
I loved the idea of consequences and how one incident can affect so many people’s futures. I also enjoyed the reflective feel of the novel; some parts really made you wonder ‘what if?’ and others felt so poignant.
There’s also the element of a sort of ‘story within a story’, which I really liked – I won’t say much more about it as I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it creates quite a self-aware feeling to the novel which you can’t understand until you read it for yourself.
Commonwealth is, overall, a slow burner of a story. Don’t expect an action-packed narrative; it slowly builds up to a higher level of intrigue and drama, then often dips back down again. It doesn’t feel like there’s any big crescendo moment – instead the story depicts what is probably more like real life for many readers: an ebb and flow of mistakes, loss, happiness, excitement, grief and, at times, regret. Family life is shown at its most basic and also at times if great challenges and upset. It definitely feels like a good-quality piece of fiction, which I appreciated and enjoyed, though it felt a bit disjointed at times.
I would still recommend this novel, all the same – great characterisation and fabulous writing. It’s a beautifully written, slowly unfolding story.