Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: The many stories of a family

Cover imageI have something of a chequered relationship with Ann Patchett’s writing: I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto. I was a little wary of becoming too excited about Commonwealth, then, despite an engaging blurb and a particularly attractive cover, but it completely won me over. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. It’s also about the stories families tell themselves and how those stories can become more public than we might wish them to be.

In 1964 Fix Keating opens the door to a guest at his daughter’s christening party to be met by a face he barely recognises. It belongs to a district attorney, not someone that a policeman like himself would count as a friend. Clutching a bottle of gin, Bert Cousins walks through the door as if he’s been invited when all he’s doing is avoiding Sunday with his own family. Gin at a christening party turns it in to something else entirely, sparking drunken encounters that will change lives irrevocably. A few years later Bert has married Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly and moved from Los Angeles to Virginia. His four children spend their summers with their father: Calvin, who likes to steal his father’s gun and tuck it into his sock; Holly the sensible one; otherworldly Jeannette and troublesome Albie, kept quiet by ‘tic-tacs’ fed to him by his siblings. Together with Caroline, furious at her mother’s desertion, and Franny, whose christening party Bert gate-crashed, these six form a tribe allowed to run wild by Bert and Beverly who would far rather look the other way until tragedy changes everything. As the years pass connections become tenuous, then are renewed. Marriages are made, children are born and Franny meets one of her literary heroes, blocked and in need of inspiration.

Patchett’s intricately constructed novel crisscrosses the years from Franny’s christening party to the present day, telling the stories of the Keatings and the Cousins but always returning to Franny, the novel’s linchpin. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: stories are told and re-told as family members share them with each other – sometimes with illuminating differences. As the family extends itself over a half-century, new characters make an appearance but Patchett never loses her focus on Franny. Points are made but never laboured – both Leon’s exploitation of Franny’s story and Bert and Beverly’s negligent parenting are crucial to the novel’s development but lightly drawn. There’s a vein of gentle wry humour running through the novel: the scene in a hotel lift when Franny is frantically trying to extract the drunken Leon’s room key from him is downright comedic. It’s all beautifully done, loose ends neatly stitched in. Pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling – no need for wariness with this one whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

16 thoughts on “Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: The many stories of a family”

  1. I have a similar relationship with Ann Patchett ….like you I thought Bel Canto was v average …so I’m so pleased to hear that this is better . Sounds like the ideal book to snuggle down with for a long Autumn read !

    1. Definitely, Helen, and I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel that Bel Canto fell short of the mark. I was mystified when it bagged the Orange.

  2. Bel Canto remains one of my favorite novels which, to me, was extraordinary. So subjective, of course, opinions about fiction, but I don’t find it mystifying it won the Orange Prize. State of Wonder is exceptional, too, and I just finished Commonwealth, which is beautifully done.

    1. Subjective, indeed! I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to differ over Bel Canto but I’m glad that Commonwealth hit the spot for both of us – as you say, beautifully done.

  3. Have you ever read any of Edith Pearlmann’s short stories? The reason I ask is that Patchett wrote the intro to Pearlmann’s Binocular Vision, a collection that was published by Pushkin a couple of years ago. So maybe there are some similarities between these two writers, either in terms of style or themes?

    1. I think I spotted that on a Pushkin press release, Jacqui. I haven’t read any Pearlmann, I’m afraid, so can’t compare the two but I can say that Patchett’s themes vary widely.

  4. Opinions do seem to differ over some of her other novels (most of which I have liked or loved), but I have yet to see a review of Commonwealth that is anything but enthusiastic. Can’t wait to read this one! (Although I might have to…)

  5. I haven’t read anything by Ann Patchett, and when I saw on Twitter a good friend of mine was reading this book I got excited because I thought I had discovered a new author. However, she gave up on reading shortly before she started. I am glad to see you think differently. Would you say she’s similar to my beloved Kate Atkinson? I get similar vibes from reading your review…

    1. Ah, no, Elena – Atkinson’s a one-off, I think. Patchett is a keen observer of relationships. I was particularly struck by her exploration in Commonwealth of the way in which families can be changed by the stories they tell themselves and other people, and sometimes the ones they don’t tell.

      1. She still sounds very interesting! I have just recently realised the power of narratives in families. I look exactly like my Grandma (different colouring though), and I grew up listening to ‘Oh, you’re so similar to your grandma!’ that I wonder if I really am, or I was made to be. Not that I complain! She was a bookworn too, so I’m happy to take after her, at least in that sense. Back to books: I’m buying this one next time I’m in the UK!

        1. That’s such an interesting observation, Elena. I think to some extent we’re all formed by those family stories, although they can change over time with the telling as Patchett’s novel points out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. This sounds like a great read. I’ve only read State of Wonder by Patchett, which I very much enjoyed. I love the idea of exploring the same story from different perspectives.

    1. This one’s very different from States of Wonder, Belinda, but I think you’d like it. It’s a wonderfully perceptive exploration of family dynamics, particularly the extended variety, and the way in which our family stories grow and change just as we do.

  7. I loved Commonwealth too, and I’m a little bit ashamed to admit that it’s my first Patchett. I found the opening chapter at the Christening party utterly enchanting and from there I didn’t look up until the story was done.

    1. Oh, you have a few treats in front of you! I’d recommend The Magician’s Assistant which has that same immersive quality.

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