Guest Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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Please note that although I just finished reading this novel I’m too lazy to write up my own review so I’m stealing/borrowing one from my lovely friend Deb C.. Deb and I have almost the exact same taste in books but she is a far superior writer. Enjoy!

Commonwealth is the story of two families – the Cousins and the Keatings – grappling with the consequences of their parents’ affair. After Bert Cousins kisses, and later marries Beverley Keating, their six children intermittently share a childhood, as they are shuttled back and forth across the country. In adulthood, Franny Keating’s relationship with a renown author, Leo Posen, unexpectedly brings her complicated family history into the public imagination, and this somewhat-blended family must come to grips with a story that is now no longer fully belongs to them.

I read Commonwealth right on the heels of The Gathering by Anne Enright and Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin, and right before Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread – I suppose I’m currently going through something of a “dysfunctional family drama, retroactively recounted” phase. And in this limited scope, a certain formula has arisen. The preferred narrator is usually a woman; a mother, with ambiguous feelings about it; broken families; and a harrowing, formative childhood experience, a locus to which all trauma refers to.

What really made Commonwealth stand out for me amongst these other titans of domestic tragedies, and what made me devour it, front to back on Christmas Day, is its tone and pace. Though Patchett’s writing does not have the poetry of Enright or Toibin, she makes up for it with a sense of incredible levity that does not for a moment undermine her keenly-felt observations. Without having to direct our feelings for a moment, or expound too ham-handedly on her character’s interiority, a perfectly sanguine dinner party becomes an excruciating experience, and a sneaky cigarette in the snow is allowed its own profundity. And just as these snapshots are given its moment – we’re whisked away to the other coast. As if Patchett understands that the greatest strength of the domestic fiction is also its greatest pratfall – that its intimate focus on everyday objects can quickly become obsessive and tiresome, if stewed in for too long.

Instead, we’re offered a sweeping panorama of two families, rife with all the mischief and anger and love that it entails.

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