by Ann Patchett (2016)
Harper (2016)
336 pp

Ann Patchett has been a consistently dependable author for me, yet for some reason I have not kept up with all of her books. The only other one I’ve reviewed on this site, though I had read a couple of her earlier novels (Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars), is her 2011 novel State of Wonder, which I thought was very good (see here). She’s published three books since. I assume it was the publication of Tom Lake last year that helped me realize I needed to stop falling behind and read them. I started with 2019’s The Dutch House, and it was so good I now want to completely correct my oversight. So here I am going back to 2016’s Commonwealth, which might just be my favorite of yet. I’ll next read Tom Lake, and then I’ll pick off the three earlier ones I have yet to read.

Commonwealth begins with an engaging line: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Cousins, it turns out, was not expected. His invite was more theoretical and based only on the fact that he kind of knows Fix Keating, the baby’s father, from work. Really he needed yet another excuse to get away from his home where his wife is tending their three young children and expecting their fourth. Events at this christening slowly unfold in Patchett’s deliberate and masterful hands. There is little overt drama, but Patchett is setting the scene for this christening as well as for the rest of the book. All is leading to and all will flow from an event toward the end of this first chapter: Cousins, the gin working on him as well as many others, will end up kissing the baby’s mom, Beverly.

The next chapter, introducing the passage of time as one of the novel’s central themes, skips ahead nearly fifty years. There are no narrative summaries of what happened in between; Patchett continues to tell her story through her characters, making the final moment of Chapter 1 — when Cousins leaves the party but first talks a bit to Beverly’s husband, Fix — feel like it was a memory being related in Chapter 2. Fix is awaiting chemotherapy with that baby daughter, Franny, now around fifty herself. As they reminisce we learn that that kiss eventually led to Cousins and Beverly each getting a divorce and marrying each other, bringing their collective six children together often over the years.

While that is what gets this book moving, it is engaged in so much more than “the illicit kiss and what it led to.” We just skipped 50 years, after all, and the characters are not really that concerned about that distant event, as profound an impact as it made on their lives. Other events also came along and made other ripples. For example, this second chapter spends a pretty good amount of time allowing Fix to tell his daughter about the time one of his partners, one who would visit and play with the her though she can’t remember, was killed on the job.

In some way, then, each of the nine chapters that make up Commonwealth could also function as a short story, with its own particular character and thematic arcs as it explores a ripple. But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a collection of linked stories. It is not. It’s a novel where the narrative summaries and explicit displays of time’s passage that we might expect are removed. This is a family saga that remains intensely intimate as it explores the various relationships, and the multiple ripples affecting each other, over the span of half a century. Here is a line that I think exemplifies how succinctly Patchett can give us a world: “His daughter from his first marriage always needed money because she needed so much more than money but money was the easiest way for her to express those needs.” It’s so humane as it explores so many faults so succinctly it pierces the heart, and I think that encapsulates what I loved so much about Commonwealth.

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