Ann Patchett Review

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 11th November 2016

Ann Patchett’s 7th novel starts at a Christening party. It’s 1964 in Los Angeles, and the heat is crippling. When Bert Cousins turns up, uninvited, carrying a large bottle of gin, the party takes on a new lease of life. But who could predict that so many lives would be changed by the events of one afternoon?

Whilst the gin and freshly squeezed orange juice flows, and baby Franny Keating is fawned over, and passed around, there is interplay between the adults. The baby’s aunt, Bonnie Keating, single, and determined to enjoy herself, upsets a woman by dancing with her husband, before seducing the priest. And that’s the least of it. Bert, a reluctant father of four, falls for Beverley, his beautiful hostess, and the ramifications for the two families will be cataclysmic.

This mesmerising novel gripped me from the first page and held me until the last. It’s one of those rare books that is so beautifully written; so cleverly constructed, and with characters who never fail to intrigue, that when you finish it, you feel bereaved. I can’t remember when a novel satisfied me as much.

The structure is episodic, jumping backwards and forwards and changing perspective constantly over the 300 plus pages. In lesser hands this could become problematic, but it works brilliantly, as each section allows us to reassess the characters, and what has gone on before. The author keeps back  information, leaking it seamlessly as the novel progresses. The story flows, and you never notice any authorial tricks.

This is not so surprising. Patchett is a much loved and renowned American novelist who has won many awards including the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Orange prize. She’s known for her beautiful prose and outstanding story-telling, and in Commonwealth she has shown those skills to perfection.

From that Christening party, the novel  jumps to the present, and Franny is visiting her now elderly father, Fix, who is losing his fight with cancer. Through their conversation, we learn that the two families merged, and that Bert’s youngest son is a troublemaker.

Then it’s back in time to a summer when the four Cousins children visit their father, who, married to Beverly Keating, lives in Virginia. Stuck there, the six children take advantage of the adult’s careless standard of care.

The summers ceased after a tragic event. Hinted at early on, we learn the truth of it when the grown-up Albie, arrives unannounced on Franny’s doorstep, looking for answers. Now living with an older novelist she fell for whilst working as a cocktail waitress,  Franny has been forced into hostess mode, in a holiday house full of spoilt hangars on.

This section, on one level one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book, is simultaneously hilariously funny. It’s juxtaposed with an evening where the high expectations of a varied guest-list runs counter to the atmosphere of frazzled nerves and high tension. It is simply masterly.

When we first meet the children they seem a pretty horrendous lot. Led by Franny’s elder sister, the viciously clever Caroline, and the adventurous Cal Cousins, they are manipulative, and frankly nasty. But as they grow into themselves, and relationships soften, we see those days anew. The silent Jeanette Cousins, then considered dim-witted, turns out to be the brightest of the bunch, and the much maligned Albie, loathed by them all, for being a damned nuisance, had simply been too young.

At the heart of this novel lies a question. To what extent do we own the story of our lives? Is it permissible for someone to use your experience for the sake of art? Overall though, it is an engaging study of family; of the past that binds us, and of our responsibility to each other. It’s ultimately redemptive, and shows that, handled carefully, a blended family can work; even if it takes years for the bitterness to dissipate.

Commonwealth by Ann Pachett. Bloomsbury: €19.  Kindle: €11.04.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 5th November.

© Sue Leonard. 2016

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