I’ve been a devotee of the fiction of Ann Patchett since reading her magnum opus, Bel Canto, an ensemble story that takes inspiration from the 1997 incident when Tupac Amaru fighters took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held 72 people hostage for four months. Patchett built from that story to create a deep, rich web of complex characters and wrote a literary fugue that she later said was her attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. (I’m not a fan of that book, so I’d say there’s no comparison.)
Her latest novel, Commonwealth, is the only other novel she’s written that tries to tell the same sort of broad tapestry of a story, with at least five and as many as ten well-defined, realistic characters in a book that plays with time as she reconstructs the history of two families. The book starts with a christening party and a drunken kiss between a husband and a wife who are married to other people, a kiss that begets an affair that begets divorces, marriages, a death, and six children becoming stepsiblings and forging bonds that will last for decades.
This isn’t Bel Canto in format, however; that book had epic scope but was told in linear fashion. Commonwealth jumps around in time based on what details Patchett wants to reveal, a gambit that started as disorienting but improved as the story went on because each section reveals something about one or more characters that proves useful in the next. I still might have preferred a linear timeline here, largely because that makes it easier for me to immerse myself in a story, but Patchett is such a skilled storyteller that she can make the future into prologue and still have it all tie together.
Although the four adults involved in the two marriages that become an affair, two divorces, and another marriage set the plot in motion, this book is much more about the kids involved than anyone else: two sisters from one marriage, then four kids, two of each sex, from the other. They’re not an easy mix at any point, but because Bert and Beverly, the couple who kissed and eventually divorce their spouses to marry each other, are kind of half-assed parents, the six kids end up partners in crime, the older ones mostly taking care of the younger, but also getting into all sorts of trouble, some trivial, some tragic.
Each story focuses on different kids, but Albie, the second-youngest of the six children, is easily the most interesting, I think because Patchett has written him as someone who today would be considered “on the spectrum” of autism but who in this book’s time period would never have been diagnosed. He’s just weird in the eyes of his siblings, who hand him Benadryl tablets and tell him they’re candy so he won’t be such a pain, and grows into a self-medicating, risk-loving teenager who can’t stay in school or keep a job and really doesn’t find any stability until at least his 20s. But as he gets older and the family situation keeps changing, some of his bonds with siblings, especially his stepsister Franny (the second best-developed character in the book), become the novel’s true center.
There’s also a bit of fun metafiction within Commonwealth, where Franny, who feels as I do about books (hand me a supply of books and then just leave me alone for a few weeks), meets a literary idol of hers, Leon Posen, and eventually becomes his lover and sort of amanuensis. Leon eventually takes her stories of her childhood and writes them into a novel, Commonwealth, that restarts his literary career, becomes a bestseller, and narrowly misses winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That last bit may prove prescient; the book is considered one of the favorites to win this year’s award, which will be announced on Monday, April 10th, but is probably less likely to win than Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
Patchett’s prose is as lush as her characters, and here she marries the two with a story worthy of her words; when she hasn’t succeeded, it’s been in books with weak stories, like Run or Taft. Commonwealth is a huge success, however, a story of and for everyone, one that is simultaneously about nothing and about everything. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Patchett gives us a whole new unhappy family to enjoy.