Reading: Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH


COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett, hardcover, 336 pages, HarperCollins

After many years of much noise and bustle, I made a decision to redefine myself. I now lead a life of quiet observation; mindfully uncluttered, simple of purpose: to find meaning in being present, unfettered by restrictive societal presumptions and biases, apart from the culture of acquisitiveness and achievement, resisting the urge to collect and accumulate stuff.

That said, there are some things I feel I must own, like new releases by Ann Patchett. So, despite my determinedly (and necessarily) reduced and frugal life-rejiggering, I pre-ordered Ms. Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, from my dear, local indie bookstore, The Curious Iguana, who lovingly saved me a signed first edition.

So much for me not being acquisitive. But readers, forgive me. It’s Ann Patchett. And so you understand what this choice means, the cost of a hardcover book is almost as much as I make for a day of house/pet-sitting. That said, I understand the ability to buy a book at all means I’ve a life of privilege many other people in the world do not have and I am extremely grateful for that.

Now, on to the novel. Here is what is written about Commonwealth on the Parnassus Books website, which is the bookstore Ms. Patchett co-owns:

Commonwealth is 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.

I don’t often cry when reading a book, but this story gutted me. In part, it is that my family was like the one in the novel with six children, one of whom died, and we navigated the treacherous, tortured path of sibling rivalries, the shifting and complicated loyalties and alliances exacerbated by an absent parent. With her usual scrupulous emotional honesty and artful lyricism of language, Ann Patchett captures decades of a family and the ways in which the same love that transforms and transfigures can paralyze and petrify.

Don’t let me dissuade you by misrepresenting Commonwealth as a tragedy or belonging to the lamentable agglomeration of recently heralded novels full of determinedly horrible human beings behaving abominably and suffering themselves to suicide. No, bursting from Commonwealth‘s pages are humor and insight, and convincingly real humans, vividly drawn, who you will want to embrace, scold, warn, and comfort — like family.

Ann Patchett has mastered the complicated art of writing simply. Her prose flows with such ease as one reads it, but careful examination reveals its masterful construction; its rhythms and tempos shape and are shaped by the emotional beats and actions, flowing with such grace, never show-offy or obviously technique-y, but, rather, closely observed lives given mindful, uncluttered voice. Ann Patchett writes life with a clear, unfettered generosity of spirit and brilliance of language for which she is justly celebrated. She is a national treasure, one of our greatest writers.

I feel certain if you read my blog, you are already an Ann Patchett fan, so I don’t need to go on to convince you to read Commonwealth, and perhaps I can fulfill my quest to redefine myself in simpler, cleaner, less convoluted lines by stopping here. Which I will, with this brief excerpt from the novel that brought me to tears where a mother, Teresa, is talking about the death of her son, Cal, to her daughter, his sister, Holly. Listen:

“Then after Cal died.” Teresa shrugged. “Well, you remember that. We sure weren’t moving to Virginia after Cal died, though I’ll tell you, it bothered me to have him buried there. It was just about going forward in those days, one step, one step, not falling all the way down into myself. I didn’t think about changing my life. My life had already been changed. I just had to get through it.”

“You got through it.” Holly took the car down to second. They were behind a truck, climbing and climbing.

“We all did, I guess, in our own ways. You don’t think you’re going to but then you do. You’re still alive. That was the thing that caught me in the end: I was still alive. You and Albie and Jeanette, still alive. And we wouldn’t be forever, so I had to do something with that.”

There is so much lyricism in the “one step, one step” and the “…changing my life. My life had already been changed.” And the “…climbing and climbing.” Those doubles, the build of repetition, so perfectly placed in a scene where Mother and Daughter, after a great absence from one another, in a country not their home, climb together a mountain in a tiny vehicle, behind a huge hulking truck, and those word-doublings followed in the next paragraph by not two, no, but three uses of “alive” after which Ann Patchett renders in a gorgeous, straightforward declaration of a hard-learned truth, that feeling familiar to anyone who has lost someone and watched their relationships with the other survivors metamorphose, the closure that is not at all closure, but, discovery and acceptance about being alive, this: “And we wouldn’t be forever, so I had to do something with that.”

That’s genius. That’s heartbreaking. That’s a writer whose books you buy because doing so isn’t collecting stuff, it’s receiving treasure.

Thank you, Ann Patchett.

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