Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: "Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

"The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin."

How can you resist a novel that starts like that?

Bert Cousins' decision to bring a bottle of gin to a christening party for Fix and Beverly Keating's infant daughter Franny, a party to which he wasn't even invited, is much more than a social faux pas. Showing up at that party makes Bert realize he wants more out of his life than his job as a deputy DA, and his wife and three kids (with one more on the way) can offer him. Simply put, he wants Fix's life, or more specifically, Fix's wife.

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett's newest novel, explores the ripple effect that Bert's actions during the christening party have not only on the two couples, but the six children they have between them. Focusing mostly on the children, shifting focus and perspective through five decades, this is a fascinating, moving, at times slightly meandering, but tremendously powerful look at how blended families try to coexist, and the strange and powerful bond that exists among the children in these families.

"Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget."

The Keating and Cousins children grew up spending summers together in Virginia. They were a motley crew of different, and often disparate, personalities and behaviors, from sullen Cal and bossy Caroline, to know-it-all Holly and Albie, the hyperactive baby of both families. Taming Albie's behavior often was an activity that all of the children participated in, which led to a tragic event one summer day, a day which bonded all of the children with a secret they vowed never to share. But years later, in a relationship with a famous author, Franny shared her family's story, leading to the reopening of wounds thought healed (or at least ignored), and revealing more truths than they are ready to share.

Who owns our story? Does anyone have the right to tell it? Does revealing hidden truths bring about catharsis, or more pain? Patchett raises interesting questions in this book, as she also looks at the challenges of loyalty affecting children of divorce and remarriage, the difficulty some experience in finding their own path in life, and the advantages and disadvantages of growing older.

I've been a big fan of Patchett's throughout her career, devouring and loving all of her books, even the one which many are divided on, Bel Canto. The way she tells a story really immerses you in the middle of it, and her characters are richly drawn, even if they're not always sympathetic. This is a book of moments both big and small, emotions both dramatic and nuanced, and I found it really compelling, even though at times I wondered where she was taking the plot.

Family dynamics and dysfunction is a topic often plumbed by fiction writers, and there have been some other really strong novels this year which centered around it, including Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's The Nest (see my review) and Calla Devlin's Tell Me Something Real (see my review), among others. Commonwealth is a little stronger than both of those, another novel that makes you think as it makes you feel.

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