‘Commonwealth’ by Ann Patchett


2016, 336 p

This book was next cab off the rank after reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. A damned hard act to follow, and so I was pleased to read something contemporary and not too pretentious. And even though the name suggests something Cromwellesque, it is instead a domestic/family novel set in America spanning the 60s to the present day.

It starts in 1964 at a christening party. Bert Cousins turns up alone, without his wife, to the party held by a barely-known work colleague, ‘Fix’ Keating. There he notices Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly. None of them know it, but soon the Keating’s marriage will be ended, and Bert and Beverly will become a couple. There are children from both first marriages, and despite their anger at their respective parents, the children themselves form a group, at time united, at times jealous and resentful. The book traces the blended families over time, as further relationships fail and the now-grown children move into adult life. Their life story is not their own, and instead becomes publicized through a book called “Commonwealth”- the name of this novel. I don’t really know that the book needed this little metafictional twist: it’s only a minor part of the novel, and the title really doesn’t fit with the book as a whole. Unless, perhaps, you thought of the family as a Common-Wealth, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

As in books by Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout, this is a book with complex, contradictory, fully-rounded characters. They are not always likeable, but their actions always make sense, at some level, just as we know that our own actions do, however baffling they may seem from the outside.

This is a very domestic, relationship-heavy novel that captures the intricacies and frictions of blended families. It is noticeably American, bathed in a television hue. If perhaps the cohesion of the children seems too good to be true, it does illustrate the way that ties can continue, though sometimes strained, across the various permutations of family as we know it today.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: The Little Free Library at Macleod Station.


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