Recommended Reading: Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett


Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth* is like an unfamiliar lake on a ninety-degree day that you can’t  wait to sink into; even if you don’t know how deep it goes, you won’t want to come up for air.

img_1022It starts in Los Angeles, with a bottle of gin and orange trees heavy with fruit. Bert Cousins walks into the christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s new daughter Franny with a completely inappropriate gift (the gin), which when mixed with fresh-squeezed juice from the backyard oranges leads to revelry not usually associated with christening parties.

Then Bert kisses Beverly, leading to the unraveling of two families and the imperfect attempt to knit together a new blended family. Beverly and Bert move to Virginia with Franny and her older sister Caroline; Bert’s four children—Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie—visit during the summers, leaving their mother Teresa behind in L.A. Bert and Beverly are “careless people” in many respects; the children are often unsupervised, and they find their (dangerous) freedom exhilarating: “It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren’t, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

The kiss is the first of three turning points in this excellent novel. The second involves a terrible accident; the third is when Franny, adrift in her twenties, meets the acclaimed novelist Leo Posen and tells him her family’s story.

Commonwealth follows eleven major characters over fifty years—and manages to deliver full portraits of their lives in less than 350 pages. Each chapter is as exquisitely paced and revealing as a short story (indeed, several of the chapters could stand alone as stories), and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ms. Patchett’s storytelling makes the ordinary gripping; for instance, when Franny is treated like a cook and maid by Leo’s publishing friends in the summer house they’ve rented together, I started biting my nails, wondering if she would snap. I practically cheered when, earlier in the book, Teresa puts her four kids on the plane to their father (who had pushed for full summer custody) without suitcases but with a list of all the appointments they need (dentist, doctor, etc): “Beverly Cousins wanted her family? Have at it.”

I started off thinking that Commonwealth would be a book about divorce; and it is, of course, but it’s more about family, bad decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions, loyalty, and friendship. My copy of the book is studded with notes marking favorite passages and lines (“Franny’s skin was so translucent it acted more as a window than a shade.”); I’m willing to bet that if you pick it up (it’s out today), your copy will be too. Commonwealth is highly recommended.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of Ann Patchett’s other books?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Confession: Though I own Bel Canto and State of Wonder (the former acquired at a delightful book swap birthday party in January 2009, the latter at Target, which maybe tells you something about my collecting habits), Commonwealth is the first of Ann Patchett’s books that I’ve read. I admire her work on behalf of independent bookstores, and you can be sure that if I ever visit Nashville, Parnassus Books would be the first stop on my itinerary.

24 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

      • That would be very conscientious of you 😉 Alternatively, you might like to use her nonfiction as a palate cleanser between novels: Happy Marriage is a set of autobiographical essays. One in particular will reveal to you some of the inspiration for Commonwealth.

  1. I haven’t read any by her either (although have Bel Canto because it’s someone I knows favourite book plus it has been made into an opera!) – as soon as I read the blurb for Commonwealth I knew I wanted to read it. Exactly my thing. Your mention of gin in the opening just seals the deal! (As an aside, the person I know who loves Bel Canto didn’t love Commonwealth!).

    • That is so cool about the book being turned into an opera (I love opera). And yeah, the gin and juice combination in the first chapter made me very, very thirsty, especially given how hot it’s been here.

  2. I haven’t read Commonwealth yet, but I usually love Patchett. State of Wonder is really wonderful. I read Bel Canto many years ago and I also liked it, but I have a review for State of Wonder on my site somewhere, and it was one of my best books of the year.

  3. I love the orange-y colours on your post today!
    Happy to hear you liked this so much – you have me even more anxious to read it than I already was! I have read 5 other books by Ann Patchett and have liked every one of them. Bel Canto is my favourite so far, then State of Wonder and Patron Saint of Liars, then Run and The Magician’s Assistant. It could be that you’ve just read the best one of all, but you should read Bel Canto and let me know how you think it compares. I really loved that one. 🙂

  4. I haven’t read her either. There’s a lot of American women authors I’ve been putting off for whatever reason. I finally got to Louise Erdrich and was like, why did I wait? I bet I’ll feel the same way about Ann Patchett .

  5. A kiss that unravels two families. It’s never just the kissers who suffer from those bad decisions, is it? Thank you for an excellent review, as usual. But maybe I’ll read Happy Marriage instead.

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