Commonwealth–by Ann Patchett


I actually met Ann Patchett many years ago when she visited my Contemp. Novels class at McNeese State University. At the time, we had a prestigious professor, Robert Olen Butler, who had won the Pulitzer for his collection of short stories, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He was quite full of himself, but he did bring in some well-known writer friends, so the class was a joy! And I have a signed edition of Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars.

Commonwealth is a great story; the twisting plot, the shifting point of view, and the wealth of detail make for a captivating read (or listen, to be more specific, since I bought it on Audible). The story of 6 step-siblings and their rollicking, largely unsupervised upbringing brought back my own days of youth. Parents weren’t (and weren’t expected to be) all that involved with their children’s concerns or even their whereabouts in the 60s and 70s, although Bert and Beverly really are beyond the pale. It’s not much surprise that the Cousins-Keating children who make it to adulthood all have emotional problems. Lackadaisical parenting contributed to many of the Albie’s of my generation. Patchett does capture the real rupture of the family unit that resulted from the social upheaval of the mid-century. Bert Cousins brought Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom to mind, just a little.

The book does have some weaknesses, though. The characters lean toward stock; Caroline-the hard-edged bully, Franny–the sensitive one with low self-esteem, Albie–the drugged out drop-out, Beverly–the self-centered beauty; all the characters seem to be cut from cookie-cutters.

Patchett’s lush story-telling, also, falters in the final 1/4 of the book. The ending seems forced, even a little contrived, as if she were looking for a good way to tie up all the loose ends. The problem is, though, she doesn’t. Now sometimes, good literature does this on purpose; Patchett, in this book doesn’t seem to be doing that. She just seems to be faltering around, looking for the best way to end each character’s story. Unfortunately, their stories leave the reader with very little. I preferred Patron Saint or State of Wonder to this one.