This is my review of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.
When LA cop Fig admits uninvited guest Bert Cousins to his daughter Franny’s christening party, little does he realise that this will trigger the break-up of his marriage to the beautiful blonde Beverley. One cannot know to what extent this is autobiographical, but Ann Patchett’s personal experience of parental divorce and remarriage leading to the sudden acquisition of step-siblings and enforced living with strangers must provide plenty of material to develop this aspect of domestic drama. A further twist is Franny’s eventual marriage to a famous writer who sees the potential of her family story to create a bestselling novel, leading to further reactions of hostility, resentment or guilt over the exploitation of family members.
I was hooked by the kaleidoscopic impressions of the first chapter, as the party begins to spin out of control under the influence of Bert’s inappropriate gift of a large bottle of gin, inevitably prompting the opening of others. I could appreciate the author’s much-praised gift for using small often banal incidents to reveal much about situations and characters, seen from different points of view.
The nine chapters, some quite lengthy, may seem like linked short stories, relying heavily on flashbacks to reveal the chain of events, including a tragedy with the power to destroy the family. I regret that in the second chapter, I felt an abrupt loss of engagement. This is partly due to the grim setting of a cancer ward where Fig is to be found receiving chemotherapy, accompanied by an adult Franny. I was continuously distracted trying to work out how many decades have passed since the christening in 1964. The flitting sequence of reminiscences and thoughts felt quite contrived, a device for filling the reader in, but it is hard to keep track of all the characters mentioned – which of these have we already heard about or met in Chapter 1? It is disconcerting, for instance, to find that Albie, not yet born in Chapter 1, has become a delinquent arsonist, while Bert and Beverley have divorced before one knew for sure they had ever married. It is hard to relate to comments and anecdotes about characters before they have been clearly established in a story.
What seems like a promising theme therefore comes across as a bit of a mess in its execution. I wanted to like the novel, but too often found it boring and "spread too thinly" across an excessive number of largely underdeveloped characters. To be fair, perhaps the fact I had just read the exceptional “The Invention of Nature” made me set the bar too high, meaning I was not in the mood to make the effort to connect with this novel. I certainly admire the author’s desire to broach diverse, complex topics from different angles, having read “Bel Canto” , inspired by the hostage-taking of the President of Peru, where she explores the views of both terrorists and captives, revolving round the charismatic persona of the opera singer who is one of the prisoners. Very different again was “State of Wonder” in which a pharmaceutical researcher braves the remote Amazonian rainforest to discover what happened to her lover who had gone to work there.
In short, this is a book which divides opinion and promotes discussion.