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Commonwealth Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 13, 2016
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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.
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"Commonwealth" is a novel about two families whose fates are set into motion one LA afternoon in the 1960s at a Christening party to which a large bottle of gin is brought, and ripe oranges happen to be plentiful on the neighborhood trees. If any one detail of that day had been different, so would be the lives of the two families that were set into motion like a cascade of falling dominoes. "Commonwealth" is immediately engrossing; I can't imagine reading the first chapter and not being compelled to read on. The novel floats back and forth in time and among the members of the Cousins and Keating families, specifically the six children united by their hatred of their parents. Don't let the term "domestic drama" fool you into thinking this is light fare; Patchett can do in 300 pages what Franzen does in 600 - paint a fully realized picture of family life with all its many facets: humor, despair, evil thoughts, sibling rivalry, fraught relationships, tragedies, revenge and betrayal.
Speaking of betrayal, Patchett employs a neat little conceit by having one of the characters reveal family secrets to a famous author who uses these as the basis of a prize-winning bestseller called, "Commonwealth". Several sections of the novel deal with how particular family members react to their lives being re-told and re-shaped for mass consumption. As an avid reader of family-centric novels, I wondered how often this scenario plays out in reality; I’m guessing it is often.
I've read Patchett's entire oeuvre, and no two novels are alike, yet Patchett writes convincingly in each; we don't feel she's merely researched her topics well, we feel she's LIVED them. Has she: lived in a home for unwed mothers? Been a magician's assistant, or an opera singer held captive? Has she been to the Amazon? Is she a child of divorce? Unlikely all are true, but one would be forgiven for wondering.
"Commonwealth", is one of those novels that you race to finish because you want to know what happens to characters you’ve come to care about, while at the same time you want to slow down to make it last.
Here's what I liked:
1. The writing is excellent and has Patchett's flair
2. Some of the story turns were compelling and could have merited an entire novel on their own.
3. The title has special meaning within the story.
4. The cover art ties into the story.
Here's what I didn't like:
1. The organization of the novel - the chronology - is a HOT MESS. I don't know why authors like to reveal stories in a crazy, non-linear order. I always felt a story should unfold for the reader. In this book, the first chapter is followed by a chapter that is somewhere in the future (I'm guessing about 30 years later). There are no year headings on the chapters so you have to read a while to try to figure out who's who and what's what and when that chapter is taking place.
2. There are too many main characters...two sets of parents/step-parents, four children from one family and two children from another. I found it hard to keep them apart (especially with the constantly shifting timelines).
3. Characters (and plot lines) and presented, then dropped, then (maybe) picked up again...but maybe at a different time in the story.
4. The reader is misled in some cases. For example, in one chapter one of the children dies and the reader is led to believe of one cause. Many chapters later you will find out the cause is something else entirely.
5. Some of the children in the story disappear (or briefly appear or re-appear) after a while leaving me feeling the book was unfinished.
So...I didn't love it or hate it. But it is hard for me to give a Patchett novel only three stars.
This is a character driven book rather than a plot driven one. It unfolds in a non-linear way, sometimes referring to events that we don't know about yet, and then circling back to fill in the gaps. I liked piecing the jigsaw of what happened and what everyone's story was together. I also really liked Ann Patchett's passing asides about things. She has a wonderfully descriptive way of mentioning something you've never given a lot of thought to, but making you think: "yes! that's exactly how it is!".
While I enjoyed this very much, it was ultimately a little too aimless for me: hence the four star rating.