Friday, August 4, 2017

Summer Reading: Commonwealth

The final selection on my summer reading list (the summer has gone by so fast!) was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. My former book club read Truth and Beauty, a memoir about Patchett's friendship with the author Lucy Grealy which was quite moving, but I had never read any of her fiction until now. I will definitely read some of her other works because I loved Commonwealth. This novel spans fifty years in the lives of the blended family of Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating, including Bert's children Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie, and Beverly's daughters Caroline and Franny. The six children spend their summers together with their parents in Virginia, mostly left to their own devices as the adults try to deal with the situation they have created, until a tragedy strikes. The events are told in a nonlinear narrative from multiple perspectives as the children become adults and deal, each in their own way, with the trauma of their childhood. All of the events are set in motion when Bert attends the christening party, to which he has not been invited, of the daughter of a man with whom he has a passing acquaintance and then shares an illicit kiss with his wife, Beverly. Thus begins a chain-reaction of events which have far flung consequences. All of the children, at various points, wonder what their lives would have been like had that kiss not happened. There is a sub-plot involving Franny and her relationship with a famous author who uses her childhood stories as the basis for a best-selling novel, and later movie, and her siblings' negative reaction to something which makes them confront their past. This is an interesting device because Patchett's own childhood informed much of this story and one has to wonder if her siblings had a similar reaction as the fictional ones. What I liked most about this novel is the use of time. Whole decades are skipped in the lives of the characters in favor of a series of vignettes but you still feel like you know them intimately and they are all incredibly compelling. The time span allows the theme of learning how to forgive family members, even ex-spouses, to emerge very powerfully. The writing is absolutely exquisite and I enjoyed reading this novel so much, which I did well into the night so I could finish it. I think anyone who has ever been a part of a blended family will find it very authentic and I highly recommend it.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of the other selections on my summer reading list?  What did you think?

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