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Ann Patchett has gained a reputation for writing with knowledge and compassion about places and situations that would be, at least prior to reading her novels, unfamiliar to most readers. BEL CANTO plays out against the backdrop of a hostage crisis in an unnamed South American country. STATE OF WONDER is about a pharmacologist sent on location to the Amazon rainforest in search of a wonder drug. In her latest work of fiction, however, Patchett conveys a story that may feel, if not exactly familiar to readers, at least recognizable.

The book opens at a christening party in suburban Los Angeles. It’s the 1960s, and police officer Fix Keating is celebrating the baptism of his younger daughter, Franny. He barely knows the man, so he doesn’t know why he bristles when assistant DA Bert Cousins shows up at the front door uninvited; he’s practically the only member of the LA law enforcement community who’s not already inside. Fix sets aside his misgivings, though, inviting Bert in long enough for the man to get everyone drunk on screwdrivers made with fresh orange juice from the garden…until Bert, in a move that has seemed inevitable ever since his arrival, kisses Fix’s gorgeous wife, Beverly, and changes everything.

"With its episodic structure and chronological fluidity, COMMONWEALTH is a perfect example of how brilliant storytelling can illuminate quiet joys, everyday betrayals and profound tragedies."

The rest of the novel is, in many ways, an exploration of everything that happens to the Cousins and Keating families (or, more properly, family) as a result of that one moment. Bert and Beverly leave their respective spouses and form a new family unit with Bert’s four children and Beverly’s two. The kids shuttle back and forth across the country from their old homes in California to a new home in Virginia, along the way forging new bonds and establishing new modes of survival in the wake of their parents’ missteps.

Although individual chapters consist of vignettes focusing on different characters, some of whom remain very minor until their brief moment in the spotlight, Franny, that baby in the first chapter, is very much at the novel’s center. We follow Franny as she, inspired by her father and older sister, attempts to make a go of it in law school, only to drop out and become a cocktail waitress. Through her, we learn about a childhood tragedy that came to further splinter her fragile family. Her longtime lover, an older novelist struggling with writer’s block, uses Franny’s family saga as the basis for a bestselling novel and later movie, one that may, in the end, bring together disparate branches of the family for commiseration or at least shared understanding.

Ann Patchett has quoted her mother about COMMONWEALTH, saying, “None of it happened, and all of it’s true.” This semi-autobiographical novel has at its center not only a portrait of a broken, imperfectly mended middle-class family, but also the complicated art of storytelling, what it means both for the one telling the story and the one hearing it, how versions of stories can change with each telling, with each teller, and certainly over time and across space. With its episodic structure and chronological fluidity, COMMONWEALTH is a perfect example of how brilliant storytelling can illuminate quiet joys, everyday betrayals and profound tragedies.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 15, 2016

by Ann Patchett

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062491830
  • ISBN-13: 9780062491831