Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper Collins (September 13, 2016)
Description from the publisher:
The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.
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.
To preface, I must admit that I might be biased in favor of Patchett, since I LOVED State of Wonder and was so eager to get my hands on this galley - probably the book I looked forward to most all year. On the other hand, one could argue that the bar was set pretty high! Either way, Commonwealth more than met my expectations.
From the get go, the story of these two families is utterly absorbing. Patchett is a master of 'show, don't tell.' The story seamlessly opens in California in the 60s with an amazing scene of adults getting drunk on gin n' juice (made from the oranges in the backyard) during a christening party. Patchett just plucks you right into the scene and pulls you in with these nuanced and fascinating character portraits. After being introduced to the Cousins and Keatings, at the fateful moment their families are thrown together, the narrative takes big jumps around in time giving glimpses into the lives of the grown children. And as the ailing Keating patriarch dotes on the past, or we get an evocative glimpse into the summers the children spent together, something sinister seems to lurk just beneath the surface.
Since the chapters don't necessarily go in chronological order, it can get a little jarring - especially since there are so many characters within this blended family. But having those big gaps gives us a front row seat into the absolutely essential parts of this family's life, which is so compelling, forcing the reader to want MORE. A small scene, such as my favorite when the children spend their first summer at a lake and the eldest daughter shows off her ability to pick a car lock, gives us a perfect window into how each child feels about one another, their parents, the world at large. It's full of such indelible moments among family, and the ties that bound these characters were so fascinating and real. Patchett is deft with the little details and they are suffused with such meaning, even down to the fateful oranges that grace the cover.
Some authors with similar styles tend toward plots that are languid, or lacking plot altogether. Patchett manages to create a sophisticated, atmospheric novel filled with symbolism and still maintains a page-turning urgency that builds at a perfect pace. The ensemble cast of Commonwealth will stay with me for a long time. If you love a good family drama, or just a great novel, this is up there with the absolute best of them.
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