Ann Patchett reels us in with 'Commonwealth'

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Ann Patchett (right) and her new book, "Commonwealth."

Commonwealth

By Ann Patchett
Harper. 336 pp. $27.99

Reviewed by Lynn Rosen

Ann Patchett is one of our best contemporary American writers. From the intricate and careful way she made friendship and love grow during a terrorist takeover of a private home in Bel Canto to her insightful confessional essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett is a writer whose commitment to craft shines through every book.

In Commonwealth, her newest novel, Patchett is practically standing at the front door waiting to beckon the reader in. Try this for an opening line: "The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin."

From that first sip of gin to the end of each story it sets in motion, Commonwealth is compelling reading. It's also a masterful feat, a Matryoshka doll of a novel with so many moving parts it's hard to fathom how Patchett juggles them all, but she does, and with great aplomb.

The very large bottle of gin Cousins brings to the party (he was not, in fact, invited) is mixed with orange juice from oranges pulled from trees in the back yard, and a drunken party ensues. Blame the gin, or blame hostess Beverly's great beauty and her yellow dress. Whatever the cause, the result is a new marital alignment. Beverly and Cousins leave for Virginia, and their discarded spouses, "Fix" and Teresa, remain behind in California.

This leaves six children, four belonging to Albert and Teresa and two daughters, Franny and Caroline, whose parents are Fix and Beverly, to spend their next years shuttling back and forth in various configurations. The book presents us with a complex medley of stories as Patchett follows the mix-and-match threads of the rejiggered family.

The christening party with which the book opens is Franny's. In the next chapter, Franny, now grown, is escorting her elderly father to chemo. These first two chapters are bookends of a sort, and subsequent ones follow the children in various stages of their lives, both as children living with parents and/or step-parents, and later muddling through what for them is the precariousness of adulthood, each seeking some sort of success in career and relationships.

At the center of it all is the family's great trauma, a loss with which they must grapple. As each chapter unspools more of the family story, the reader is reeled in closer to what really happened, gaining insight into the whys and what-ifs of the family trajectory.

Each child is given his or her own carefully delineated story. Franny is at the emotional center, doing her own muddling, dropping out of law school (a career wished upon her by her father), and working as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. It is there she happens to meet Leon Posen, the older, Saul Bellowesque writer with whom she becomes involved, setting in motion yet another chain of events with familywide repercussions.

Anyone familiar with Patchett's bio will recognize the overlap between the plot of Commonwealth and Patchett's own story. Like the children in this book, she lived in California. Her parents divorced, and she moved to Nashville with her mother and older sister so her mother could be near the man who would become her second husband and who himself had four children. Because of the high price of travel, Patchett saw her biological father only on yearly visits.

Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. Photo: Melissa Ann Pinney. 

 

In an interview, Mary Laura Philpott, the editor-in-chief of Musing, the online magazine produced by Patchett's store, Parnassus Books, says to her: "You've joked that this latest novel is the one most people write first, the one closest to home." Patchett says it involves the recent death of her father as well as her time of life: "I'm in my fifties now, and I don't want to think that certain parts of my own life are off-limits anymore."

It seems that no story is off-limits to Patchett. In each of her novels, she builds an elaborate and complete world and peoples it with vivid and memorable characters. From the Catholic home for unwed mothers in her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars to the Memphis bar featured in Taft to the Amazonian village of State of Wonder, whether Patchett stays close to home or roams far afield, we will always want to accompany her on her journeys.

Lynn Rosen (lynn@openbookphilly.com) is the Inquirer books blogger and co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park.