I finally read Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and I really liked it. Have you read it?
I have been a Patchett fan since The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto, and have had Commonwealth on my to read list for a while now. I luckily came across it on the new releases shelf at my local library last week, and devoured it in two days.
Commonwealth opens with a kiss. A man and woman, both married to others, kiss one another during a Christening party, and a chain reaction begins. They leave their spouses to marry, destabilizing two families and dragging six children into a new constellation of relationships. The novel follows this expanded family—parents, step-parents, and children—through the following decades. Some of them are at peace, others struggle, and all of them carry the consequences of the aftermath of their parents’ decision.
Patchett’s writing is beautiful, as always, and she captures the abandonment the children experience as their parents build new lives. Shared custody brings the six children together for a few weeks each summer, and it is during one of those summer vacations that they experience a deep, life-changing loss. I wondered, as I read Commonwealth, if not for the kiss, would the outcome have been different. That question haunts the backdrop of the story: what are the choices we make that change us irrevocably?
Franny, who was a baby when the book began (it was at her Christening party that her mother fell for another man), serves as the main character of the novel, and her story exemplifies the idea that we are formed by our decisions—or by our lack of them. She goes to law school because it is expected of her, drops out when it turns out she doesn’t want to be a lawyer after all, becomes a waitress, gets involved with a much older, married writer, and shares with him her family’s story. He takes that story and turns it into a wildly successful book, and Franny assumes the role of muse. But being a muse doesn’t suit her, and the burden of sharing her family’s secrets weighs her down. All of the characters in the book face similar moments of choice, and that forms the foundation for Commonwealth.
I typically like books that dive deep into the stories of the main characters, but Commonwealth is different. The narrative moves from one character to the next, advancing in time. This gives the reader the opportunity to see the story from multiple angles. Sometimes, action happens off-the-page, and the reader learns of it through a character’s recounting. Other times, a development is shared in passing, without extensive discussion. I can see how some readers would find this frustrating, but I had the opposite reaction. Moving from character to character gave me the chance to see many stories and perspectives, all connected but, at times, separate. The book felt woven together, each story belonging to the others yet with its own focus.
Recommendation: Great for Patchett fans, and for those seeking a novel about the complexity of families. Commonwealth is an engrossing read, so it’s perfect for long airplane rides and summer afternoons relaxing in a hammock in the backyard.
P.S. How do you choose what books to read? I wish I could tell you I had a reading plan, but, honestly, I chose what to read next in a haphazard fashion. I have a stack of books on my bedside table, which I never read no matter how well they are reviewed or how long they’ve been there. (There’s something about that pile that curses books, preventing them from ever being read.) I have books all over my house that I hope someday to read. And, my Kindle is crowded with books I haven’t finished. But my next book? It’ll probably come from somewhere else: a Kindle sale, a recommendation from a friend, or a chance encounter at the library. I keep a list on Goodreads of books to read, but it’s more of a tease than a plan.