BOOK REVIEW: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

One kiss can change everything. Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, Commonwealth, begins in 1964, when Albert Cousins locks lips with Beverly Keating at her daughter’s christening party. Both Cousins and Keating are married to another, and the book explores how their kiss binds the two families. The novel tells parallel stories:  at once the narrative of the lives of Beverly, Albert, their respective partners, and their children following the kiss, and simultaneously the tale of how the youngest Keating daughter, Franny, narrates her family history to author Leo Posen. The book Posen writes is also titled Commonwealth.

Although her name is familiar, Ann Patchett is not an author I’ve read before. I honestly can’t tell you what I was waiting for. Now that I’ve finished Commonwealth, I’m itching to pick up another novel of hers. Patchett’s style echoes that of the British author, Zadie Smith (one of my personal favourite writers). Both women explore every element of the human condition and what it means to live and love.

Commonwealth is one of novels that is both compellingly readable, and one you wish to savour. I couldn’t decide if I should power through the pages or try and read it slowly. Told in a series of carefully chosen episodes, Patchett’s story has enough substance to be hundreds of pages longer. She, however, has an eye for the explicit and the implicit. At just over 300 pages, this is a compact novel that speaks of far more than the words on the page. Its plot, although not monotonous by any means, does not follow the traditional rising action, climax, and resolution arc. The key to Commonwealth is not its plot but its characters. Some are more likeable than others, but all are authentic for their strengths and flaws, their triumphs and failures, their high expectations and harsh realities.

‘It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.’

Everything in Commonwealth revolves around family. It is a domestic novel, set mostly in America, but one that resonates with readers transnationally. Most delicately detailed are the relationships between parents and children, siblings, and step-siblings. Patchett’s Commonwealth and Leo Posen’s Commonwealth follow six children: Caroline and Franny Keating, and Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie Cousins through their intertwined childhoods and each of their adulthoods, as well as the lives of their four parents. The novel is equally about what it means to be a child and what it means to parent a child, and the invisible yet inevitable shift from one to the other. With such a wide cast of characters, you’d think that some would fade into the background. However, the author carefully describes and develops each of the children and their parents so that each personality is as real and raw as the next. There is someone for everyone in this novel. Readers who have felt bullied and excluded will relate to Alfie, while quiet introverts will identify with Jeanette. And, for those of us who have ever made a mistake, the thoughts, feelings, and actions of every character will resonate.

‘they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty… The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.’

In being a domestic novel, Commonwealth encompasses all the twists, turns, surprises and spontaneities of family life. There is little linear or straightforward about Patchett’s style. Although spanning over five decades, the chapters of the novel are not chronological. Each drifts back and forward in time, blurring past and present. The setting of the novel is not singular either. The children’s lives are spread between California, Virginia, New York, Chicago, and even Switzerland. Patchett’s attention to detail means that, even if you’ve never been to the places described, the author wants you to feel like you have.

‘Los Angeles smelled like lemons and asphalt and the muted exhaust of a million cars.’

Through the character of the fictional author Leo Posen, Commonwealth explores the intricacies of writing. The novel not only questions what it means to tell a story, but what it means to own a story, and what it feels like when your narrative is appropriated by someone else. As Patchett´s fiction is very much inspired by her reality, these portions of the book read as all the more personal and powerful.

‘“Did you ever want to be a writer?”

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. “I only wanted to be a reader.”’

Patchett tackles common themes in brave, original, and exciting ways. With characters real and rounded and descriptions daring and detailed, this is a novel that took my breath away, left me wanting to laugh and cry, read and reread, and recommend to everyone in the process. Just like the single kiss between Beverly and Albert sparks an inseparable joining of two families, the single reading of Commonwealth inspires an obsession with Ann Patchett, an author whose style, voice, and eye for detail is nothing short of genius.

Ann Patchett

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Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of non-fiction. She has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction three times; with The Magician’s Assistant in 1998, winning the prize with Bel Canto in 2002, and was most recently shortlisted with State of Wonder in 2012. She is also the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She is the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Karl, and their dog Sparky. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/ann-patchett/#sthash.O6z9o4GW.dpuf

Commonwealth was published by Bloomsbury on 4th May 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Commonwealth from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Bloomsbury click here

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Review by Alice Kouzmenko

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