Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Commonwealth," by Ann Patchett

If you like beautifully written novels about quirky, dysfunctional but loving families, read the wonderful author (of such novels as “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder,” the latter of which I posted about on 9/19/11) Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Commonwealth” (Harper, 2016). Really. Read it! Two families are friends; early on in the novel (so this is not a spoiler) the husband in one family and the wife in the other fall in love and get married. The focus is on the six children of the two families, who are now bound together as stepsiblings. They bond but also fight, and live through some very difficult times, sent back and forth between their new sets of parents, sometimes living together and sometimes separately. They resent each other yet cling to each other; they fight yet back each other up. They suffer, some more than others, and there is at least one tragedy. Some of them feel lifelong guilt. But there is much humor and much resilience as well. The novel covers 50 years. We follow the children into adulthood, and among other events, a new crisis is precipitated when a famous author becomes the lover of one of the grown siblings and uses the family story as the basis of his next novel, which becomes a huge bestseller titled “Commonwealth,” just as this real novel with the same title has become a big bestseller (very meta). The plot thickens: Patchett is open about the fact that this novel is very autobiographical; there was a similar set of divorces in her childhood, and she too has stepsiblings. She and those stepsiblings also regularly crossed the U.S. to be with the various parents. So one question the novel raises is that of who owns our stories, and what obligations we have regarding our own and our family’s stories and privacy. Highly recommended!
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