Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Genre: Literary fiction

On a Sunday afternoon in 1964, Bert Cousins gatecrashes Franny Keating’s christening party. Franny is the daughter of a man Bert scarcely knows, and when he arrives with a bottle of gin in hand, his only thought is to escape the chaos of his household for a few hours. However, before the party ends, he kisses Franny’s mother, Beverly, and in doing so realigns the fate of their two families.

In 1988, while working as a cocktail waitress, Franny meets acclaimed author Leon Posen. She falls in love with him, and he falls in love with her story. With his career failing, he reworks the Cousins’ and Keatings’ shared history into a best-selling novel, reimagining the private and personal for the public and making Franny’s story his own.

Commonwealth (Bloomsbury, Sep. 2016) is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking: a poignant exploration of perspective, interpretation and the ownership of stories, but also a deeply moving novel about love, familial responsibility and the ties that bind.

I’ve been meaning to get acquainted with Patchett’s work for years. She’s one of those authors I feel I ought to have read, but I’ve never quite got there. So when Commonwealth thunked onto my doorstep, my first thought was: ‘Finally‘, closely followed by: ‘Gosh, I love that cover!’

Patchett greets the reader with a cracking first sentence: ‘The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.’ And from there I found it nigh impossible to extract myself from the Cousins’ and Keatings’ shared world. An air of fatalistic enchantment hangs over the opening chapter describing the party before Patchett shifts to a more naturalistic style to narrate the decades that follow.

Commonwealth is subtly meta, though I’m hesitant to use that term. When I think ‘meta’, I think Paul Auster and Scream. I think of stories earnest to draw attention to their own cleverness. I think ‘playful’ with a high possibility of pretension. Commonwealth takes a quieter approach. The novel Posen writes, which is inspired by Franny’s childhood, shares the title, Commonwealth. It doesn’t significantly alter the Cousins’ or Keatings’ lives, nor does the film adaptation made many years later. Indeed, the general public is unaware that the book is based on true events. Moreover, Patchett doesn’t include sections from the book or scenes from the film. Rather, the existence of these two texts prompts the families to revisit and reexamine the stories they tell themselves and each other about their shared past, in particular, a tragedy that occurs when Franny is aged seven. In this way, Patchett asks gentle questions, not only about who owns a story but also about our obligation to the truth. She further examines how our understanding of stories alters over time and how stories evolve and shift with each retelling.

As a writer, I was particularly interested in Patchett’s examination of stories. However, it was the characters and seeing how they and their relationships developed over more than four decades that made Commonwealth a memorable and compelling read. Patchett dips in and out of the Cousins’ and Keatings’ lives, evoking their changing worlds with careful detail: the sluggish summers when Franny and her sister, Caroline, are forced to share their home with their step-siblings, the four Cousins’ children; their parents’ blossoming romances and break-ups; Franny and her younger step-brother, Albee’s adolescent friendship; the children starting families of their own, or not; Franny and Caroline’s unexpected meeting with Bert’s first wife, Teresa; Franny’s shifting relationship with her own parents; the family dynamics shuffling and resettling over time.

Patchett’s prose is both vivid and eloquent, singing with sharp and careful detail, and Commonwealth makes for a tender and quietly haunting read.


See Commonwealth on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaBook Depository and Amazon.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Australia for providing a copy of Commonwealth in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up two critical issues and nine advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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