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Book Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (4/5)

10 Aug

My only other exposure to Ann Patchett had been nonfiction so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. I liked the nonfiction, don’t get me wrong, but writers are very different when telling stories versus recounting them. It was a book club pick so I knew I was going to read it anyway!

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Other books by Ann Patchett reviewed on this blog:

Truth and Beauty (4/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

This book was a fast read for me. I was in the middle of it when it came time to leave for my Pacific Northwest vacation so I quickly got the book on CD, burned it to my phone, and let myself enjoy it while running in Seattle. The switch from reading a paper copy to listening to someone else read to me was a bit jarring at first, but I grew to really enjoy the story and how it was read to me. I liked the story, it didn’t bother me that it was a character-driven novel, and I thought the time jumps were well done. It’s a book where it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why you enjoyed it, but it’s easy to say that you loved it.

The characters were well-developed and I liked them. Well, not all of them, but a lot of them. These were people I could have a drink with, people who could explain their lives to me and I would be touched and believe them. These were real people and I applaud Patchett for creating them when they felt real enough to touch.

I liked Franny. She made mistakes like the rest of her siblings, but she also owned up to them. She was very much a mother figure, even to her older sister at times, and for sure to all the Cousins kids. I’m glad so much of the book focused on her and I think her relationship with her father was one of the best in the book. She was the bookends of this book: her christening started it and her visit to Bert ended it.

I think Albie’s experiences are very relatable. As kids, there’s a lot that intentionally goes over our heads. There are things parents don’t tell us and things we don’t know to ask about. I think Albie felt like this through much of his life. He knew that he was somehow involved in Cal’s death but didn’t understand what had happened and was too confused to ask.

Ann Patchett
Image via Alchetron

I loved the opening scene of the book. The first chapter set up the rest of the story and it made for a great read. Figuring out the adult characters before moving to the children was a great introduction to this book and a great way of feeling out how the adults were going to act the rest of the book. You got a great sense of Fix and an immediate dislike for Bert. Theresa was purposefully left out of the scene which is telling for later in life.

The ending bothered me. It was the first time I really thought about a relationship between Bert and Franny. He is her ex-step-father so visiting him as a way of getting away from your mother and husband seemed odd to me at first. But, I had to realize, that man raised her. Or rather, was a ‘Bert’ version of a father, meaning he was probably absent a lot of the time. It didn’t seem to jive with the rest of the book to me.

I only listened to the last 1/3 of this book on audio, having read the first part. The audiobook was narrated by Hope Davis and it took some adjusting for me only because I wasn’t ready for another voice to read me that story. It had been the voice in my head so it was a jarring change. After about a half hour, I adjusted fine and enjoyed the reading. Davis reads like she’s telling her best friend the story and this book did well in that style.

The Keatings and Cousins had to redefine family. Beverly and Bert were absent parents. Theresa was fighting to survive while Fix was desperate to be a father. The children had to raise each other and in the case of Albie, they failed for a long time. Later in life, the families are further complicated by distance, marriage, separation, and children so that some people seem to fall away and some fall into the fold. Franny experiences this with her latest stepfather’s family at the end, but she’s been through it as well.

Writer’s Takeaway: The only thing this book was lacking for me was some direction. It’s the story of a family, to be sure, but what happens to that family is unclear. They drift apart, but not all of them. Some of them come together. But others leave. And some are pushed out. It’s really unclear what the ending of this book wraps up. It’s beautifully written and I enjoyed the ride, I just wish I knew where I got off.

This book is a high precedent for Patchett’s fiction. I’m looking forward to others. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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