Commonwealth (2016)

by Ann Patchett

A wife and mother has an affair with a husband and father. They end up marrying. Six children find themselves in a blended family, literally so when the man’s four children travel across the country to spend every summer with him and their stepmother and stepsiblings. 

Patchett’s seventh novel explores, nonchronologically, how the rearrangement affects the six offspring and four adults over the next half century. It is about family’s ability to hold us together and tear us apart. It’s especially interesting on the subject of betrayal. Franny, perhaps the main character, shares her family’s story with a lover who is a famous novelist. He claims it as material for his next book, which he calls Commonwealth, comparing the blended family with a political association of states voluntarily united for the common good.

Except for an accidental death, Commonwealth deals in ordinary moments more than drama. Patchett’s writing style is understated. Her characters are unexceptional people, some of them not always likable. Yet Commonwealth is not dull in the least, for these low-key parts add up to an insightful and realistic portrayal of family, love, and life.

In an NPR interview, Patchett said that Commonwealth was her first novel in which she allowed herself to mine her own experience. Her parents divorced when she was young, her mother married a man with four children, and they moved across country. “Being pulled out of a family and put into a family has always been very interesting to me,” she said. “It's so complicated.” Also, like Franny in Commonwealth, Patchett was criticized by the siblings of a late friend whose private life she wrote about (in the memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship).


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