Book Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (Harper, 2016)

I make no secret of the fact that Ann Patchett is one of my favourite authors. So when I found out she had a new book coming out this fall, I immediately pre-ordered it. I’m happy to report that Commonwealth doesn’t disappoint.

Patchett’s latest novel begins in the 1960s at a christening party. Franny Keating is not quite a year when her parents throw her a huge party and Bert Cousins shows up uninvited. This chance meeting between Bert and …. sets into motion the dissolution of two marriages and the formation of a new kind of family. B’s two daughters and Bert’s four kids become step-siblings, a reluctant family carted back and forth across the country and between homes. Children growing up in a kind of emotional wilderness, with a plethora of adults in their lives and yet very little adult involvement.

The story moves back and forth through the years, from the 60s to modern day, covering a lot of territory in these six young people’s lives. I did find the first couple of time jumps confusing until I was able to figure out what was happening. For the length of the novel, Patchett covers a lot of territory and there are some gaps in the narrative of each siblings’ life. Some of this is intentional – an expression of how little they really know each other – and some of it left me wondering. The book is very character driven yet without a main character. (Franny probably comes closest since we spend the most time with her as an adult.) Somehow it works though. Probably because Patchett excels at characterization, creating people who feel real and flawed and likeable and horrifying and, above all, fascinating.

Patchett excels at elevating the everyday. There is a great scene at the beginning where some of the characters make orange juice. While that might not sound exciting, Patchett creates a vivid, memorable scene and the image of oranges and orange juice becomes a subtle but recurrent theme. The book is made up of small but vital moments like this. Just as real life is.

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