Bibliophoria: Ann Patchett's Commonwealth

By Jennifer Levasseur

Ann Patchett, once of the most consistently pleasurable, enriching and challenging novelists working today, has become a cultural touchstone, the polar opposite of the reclusive writer who needs quiet seclusion to craft monumental works of literature. She somehow manages to produce a beautiful novel every few years while championing the works of others and, with candor and self-deprecating grace, reminding us how lucky she is to make her living writing.

Since 1992, she has given us strange, compelling novels that throw together disparate people who strain against and long for and accidentally form ersatz families. With plots and settings as wide ranging as an opera singer held hostage in an unnamed South American country (Orange Prize winner Bel Canto), a young wife who flees to a home for unwed mothers (The Patron Saint of Liars), researchers who get lost and discover a medical miracle among an Amazonian tribe (State of Wonder), an assistant who finds out the truth about her magician husband after his death (The Magician’s Assistant), and a white former Boston mayor and his wife who adopt two African-American children, but then she dies, leaving them to come together as a family and welcome another unexpected addition (Run).

Patchett is a (seemingly) tireless defender and cheerleader of local bookstores and reading in general. When her hometown of Nashville lost its last independent bookstore, she and a business partner took up the challenge: she simply couldn’t live in a place where people didn’t have the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and open the covers into different lives. Young writers also know she’s generous, welcoming and unafraid to share the stage. In short, to be a real reader: she gushes about the latest great thing she’s read. Since opening Parnassus, she told National Public Radio that her book diet and her own writing has been overturned. Because she devours new releases so she can make timely recommendations to her customers, she knows exactly what’s happening today in publishing—and what’s coming soon. Now when she begins to write a novel, she asks herself, What’s missing? What do readers need?

While there are countless novels about families—and many of those about blended families—Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, feels both traditional in its immediately engrossing story but also utterly original in its Patchett-ian feel-good style that includes rich characters, a tight plot, big moral and ethical questions, truly varied points of view, page-turning action and unusual shifts in time and storytelling method. Patchett clearly loves her characters, with all of their faults, so even when we can’t stand them, we care about where they end up and we want to see them turn the worst around.

Commonwealth follows about fifty years in the lives of two families brought together through infidelity and its subsequent divorces, but it begins with a long, perfectly paced tipsy party with a building ominous feel—complete with a frenzied harvest of the neighborhood’s oranges to make gin and juice and a confused priest who decides it’s his pastoral duty to dance with the lady who flashes him her blue underwear.

In the middle of the christening party for Fix and Beverly’s new baby girl, a vaguely familiar district attorney arrives uninvited with a large bottle of gin. Fix, an L.A. County cop, would like to bar him entry. Instead, he waves Albert Cousins in and takes the bottle to his wife, she of the striking yellow dress and French twist who looks like a movie star in a gaggle of extras, even as she’s wearing an apron and making cream-cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches.

“Fix held up the gin, and his wife, surprised, delivered the first smile she’d given him all day, maybe all week.”

We cringe for Fix as his life shakes on its foundation. Beverly sends him and his brother out for ice and tonic, a quick trip to the local store. The plaintive cry lingers under the simple sentences: “They’d been gone twenty minutes, twenty-five tops. It wasn’t long enough for everything to change, but when they came back the front door was standing open and there was no one left in the yard.”

As chapter two begins, we’re taken decades into the future to listen to an elderly Fix tell a grown-up Frances—the baby of the christening party—the story of her stepbrother’s name, settling up some of the most important questions the novel asks: Who owns a story? Whose right is it to tell family secrets to strangers? Once a story has been told, can the listener take it for his own? Even make it into a thinly veiled novel, no matter whom it might hurt or who might now know the truths it shows to the world?

Commonwealth is too rich, too full to explore its subplots and many characters in a short review, but they are each as loveable, infuriating, surprising, endearing and inexplicable as anyone you might know (or think you know).

It’s the perfect novel to read this weekend. Or any weekend. Which is why I’m reading it again now. 



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