This was my first introduction to Ann Patchett; I think I started Bel Canto some years ago and didn’t get very far, which is probably not the fault of the author. Commonwealth was widely regarded as one of the best novels of 2016, and I wasn’t disappointed a bit.
I like big family sagas, and Commonwealth is certainly that. It’s got lots of other things I could identify with: divorced parents and complicated sibling relationships. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had a whole lot of freedom compared to what kids have today. The characters in this book also identify as “home” two very different places I’ve also called home (California and Virginia). And there are characters who make it through law school, and others who don’t. In some ways it felt like this book was written for me.
Unlike similar books I’ve read recently, Patchett doesn’t jump around in chronology too much, although with each character we see different memories of their childhood and how that affects their adult life. We begin this book at the beginning, with the Keating family having a christening party for baby Frances. Before the night is over, Frances’ mother (Beverley) will have begun a relationship with the married man next door (Bert). And thus begins this story which spans about fifty years and covers the intertwined lives of four parents and six children.
I liked everything about this book. All of the characters are interesting and sympathetic, although I found I wanted to know more about Caroline and Jeanette. Patchett portrays the brutality of childhood directly and honestly. Sometimes siblings are horrible to each other, which I can relate to. There are tragedies in this book, but what comes across most is its subtlety and complexity. I keep thinking the word “real” to describe how this book felt. There are no easy relationships or simple problems, no quick or comfortable resolutions.
Franny is the center of the story, from the beginning until the end. Patchett does a nice job of getting us into the heads of the rest of the characters, without giving this book so many narrators that no one person gets a real voice.
Most books are easy to review; I found this book really challenging. Maybe because I’m still thinking about it, and maybe because it’s hard to put into words what was so good about it.