Ann Patchett is no stranger to the New York Times Bestseller List, or our library’s hold shelf. Debuting at #4 is her latest novel, Commonwealth. Commonwealth is the story of a blended family, opening at one of the children’s christening parties with the start of an affair. That affair combines 6 kids and shuttles them back and forth between Virginia and California. We get to know the children as adults as well, and Franny, the child who was christened in the beginning of the book, becomes an adult who dropped out of law school, became a cocktail waitress, and has a years long affair with a writer she admired who was drinking in her bar. She figures more prominently that the others because as the writer gets to know Franny and pieces of her family story, he decides it would make a good book. His comeback and final novel of Franny and her family life becomes a hit, and eventually a posthumous movie. In interviews, Ann Patchett said that she used her family in Commonwealth, and I guess I am a fool for anything that might be autobiographical or memoir-ish.
Here is what I loved about Commonwealth: the feeling of it. I wanted to know the characters, with their flaws, their choices, their fights… even if I could only meet them through each other’s eyes. I particularly connected to the stories of the children on their own finding adventure in the summer, not because that was my case, but because I did experience that camaraderie and that unwritten, unspoken but always practiced code of ethics. I look at these kids and think how did they get away with that? How did their parents let that happen? The same way my kids look at my “childhood legends.” Patchett gave me the sense that though no family was perfect, they are loveable, endearing, and imperfectly charming in some small way.
It makes me think that the truth of family stories is not necessarily what happened, but what people perceive happened, how it made them feel, the choices they then made, and how they retell it. I come from an extended family of story tellers, and when we are together, we often retell our stories for ourselves, and for our children. A different narrator provides a slightly different slant, and our children have learned to get a different cousin or aunt or uncle going to get another side. Every so often, someone is surprised. Ann Patchett herself sums it all up rather eloquently:
Most of the things in this book didn’t actually happen, but the feelings are very close to home. Or, as my mother said, “None of it happened and all of it’s true.”
Commonwealth is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is engrossing and entertaining, but it is a book that changes the reader. It may force you to reminisce and it may prompt you to think about how to tell your story. It would make a great book group discussion, and will be the novel I put my “staff favorites” recommendation slip in if it is ever in the library long enough to display on a shelf. Thank you Ann Patchett for a most wonderful book!