Monday 27 February 2017

Commonwealth - Ann Patchett (2016)

I’ve always been vaguely aware of Ann Patchett because of the popularity of Bel Canto (2001) with library patrons, but that remained the extent of my knowledge until now. Having just read Commonwealth for my library’s book club I researched her background and came away impressed. Patchett made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in 2012 because she established her own independent book store in Nashville when every other book store had closed due to the impact of online book sellers such as Amazon. Superficially this doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, however Patchett took a stand against the erosion of book stores as cultural hubs that help promote a literate community, and that is particularly significant.

Anna Patchett has impeccable literary tastes, name-checking the likes of John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as her main influences. Commonwealth does have some Updike infused into both its style and the ensemble cast of characters coping with the long term ramifications of two marriages coming to an end. Essentially Commonwealth is a minor saga involving blended families compromised by the upheaval of divorce. The novel begins in a dynamic fashion when Bert Cousins, a district attorney, gatecrashes a christening party at Fix and Beverly Keating’s house somewhere in the suburban wilds of Los Angeles. Bert’s presence at the party, the giant bottle of gin he brings and the kiss he plants on Beverley’s lips change both family’s futures; thus beginning an examination of the psychological fallout of divorce on both the children and the adults.

Patchett handles the plot arc mostly with aplomb and her writing style, which is clean and unhurried, takes the reader right into the emotional heart of the action. Despite these positives the novel's greatest undoing is that there are simply too many characters that crowd out the narrative, giving little room to explore any one character in any great depth. The closest the novel comes to a main protagonist is Franny, Fix and Beverley’s child, whom we first encounter as a baby at her christening. Franny is a likable but slightly banal character whose life has been made complex by her upbringing and the fallout from a significant tragic event that took place during one of the endless summer holidays the six children spend, mostly unsupervised, together. Commonwealth is aptly named as it doesn’t just explore the inevitable dysfunction that arises when step siblings are forced together, but also more importantly the mutual benefits of their shared circumstances, particularly when they are adults and need to lean on each-other to help them through their parents typically tragic endgames.

Franny is also at the heart of the novel’s other main thematic thrust: the moral implications of using actual real life events to furnish a novel of both characters and plot. Pratchett has some fun creating a drunken and washed out writer called Leon Posen. Posen appears around the middle of the novel and almost instantly makes a sometimes sluggish narrative much more interesting. Franny’s relationship with the aging writer brings out stories from her childhood and Posen adapts it for his comeback novel after being silent for over a decade. Through Posen Patchett explores the moralistic grey areas of novels, such as who owns a story once it is in the public domain? After all you can’t copy-write childhood memories; this is a problem that Franny’s brother Albie, one of the other stand-out characters, is faced with when he reads the novel and recognises his childhood, and in doing so discovers circumstances that he was unaware of simply because he was both the youngest and most reviled sibling.

Commonwealth left me with feelings of ambivalence because I found it to be tedious at times and bloated with characters that I found difficult to relate to, and also the last third of the novel left me cold, despite some well written scenes. Curiously however Commonwealth also impressed me just enough for me to say that I actually enjoyed it and entertain the notion that for certain readers who desire a novel to help while away the hot summer months it would be a very satisfying read indeed, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

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