Sunday, January 22, 2017

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett (fic)

If you are an Ann Patchett fan, this book will not disappoint.  If you haven't read any of her previous 6 books, you might want to give this one a try.  Patchett writes superbly of America as it is today, often revealing the hidden tensions within families.  She has a way of slowly exposing the dysfunctions and societal pressures that underlie seemingly happy suburban families.

"Commonwealth" opens in the early 60s, a time when barbecues and ranch houses were the suburban norm for middle class families.  The serene and beautiful Beverly and her policeman husband are giving a christening party for newly born Franny, their second daughter.  An uninvited guest arrives, Bert Cousins, a local lawyer, (the fly in the ointment) and so the story takes off. Bert is escaping on a Sunday afternoon from his own family responsibilities, his three unruly children and pregnant wife, Theresa.  Like a John Cheever story, everyone ends up drinking too much and somehow, Bert finds himself kissing Beverly. It isn't long before they are involved in an affair which leads to the breakup of two families.  They move across the country to Virginia, as far from California as they can get. This leaves the six children awkwardly shuffling from coast to coast with step siblings they had no choice in joining.

The story then follows the families through five decades into the new century.  The catalyst and center of the novel is Franny Keating the baby of the opening chapters.  She has literary aspirations and drops out of college to pursue her own path.  Along the way she begins an affair with a much older famous author, Leon Posen, whose star is dimming.  He lives the lifestyle of the rich and famous and Franny becomes an appendage and sort of muse.  Posen fashions a comeback novel out of Franny's childhood experiences, thinly disguising the characters involved.  He calls his novel "Commonwealth." It is subsequently made into a movie.  Once again he is wildly popular, but the result on Franny's blended families is devastating.  It is then that the reader begins to find out the secret the children have kept for all their lives and the tragic events leading up to it.  In a strange way it brings the family closer together than they have ever been and reveals a depth of feeling they have for each other.  The strength of the children's relationships with each other has allowed them to weather the parents' indiscretions.  As they enter middle-age, each has a story that has brought them to adulthood.

The novel is 322 pages long and when I read that it was covering five decades, I doubted the author could do more than superficially delve into the lives of the characters, but Patchett manages to find a depth of feeling that makes each real and worthy of compassion.

This may not be Patchett's best book, but it is peopled by fully developed characters who are interesting with their messy lives and tragic choices.  It is recommended reading.

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