Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
I don’t believe I’ve read a modern novel that takes on the issues of divorced families as forthrightly as does Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. The book begins with a christening party involving several late-‘sixties middle class, Southern California families. Several cops’ families, in fact. Someone brings gin, and the party becomes a bit rowdy. One of the tropes the author uses here is the manner in which a single, innocent act can change the course of history for two of the families, and for their children’s subsequent families.
In the end, there’s a lot of Dickens here: the everyday doings of the families involved that have societal import because of common family issues of the day. The large gatherings that allow the characters to act out their differences even as they seek common ground with one another. The effect of the environment around them (certainly not grimy, nineteenth century London), a backdrop that almost acts as a character. I won’t name names, expound on family trees; you can get this from the book’s flyleaf and from the plethora of other reviews already out there. Rather, I’d like to dwell briefly on how Patchett spun her story.
The author sends her story back in forth in time, showing us the comparisons of the different eras, but also another trope of sorts, the imagining of what lies ahead in a character’s future and the looks back that seem as distancing as the future. A first reading leaves this reader/writer with what seems a storytelling mess in the middle years. But this may be what the author intended; a chaotic mess of both families and their intermingling, going nowhere but through family to the grave. She did, however expose a rich trove of ways in which to transition back or forward in time.
And has death ever been too far removed from the American psyche? For the forever young of the ‘sixties generation, the increasing onslaught of age may very well be society’s trauma for the twenty-first century.
Patchett is clearly a social observer, and she’s pretty good at depicting on the page what she observes , although some of her most memorable scenes make her characters seem shallow in their attempt to follow Hemingway onto that psychologically existential ground. Commonwealth is a rich, complicated book, not always a trait of benefit to the reader, but it certainly is worth a second read.
My Rating: 16 of 20 stars.
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