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Life Is Fragile

A Review of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Published on:
November 23, 2016
Read time:
4 min.
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Every sentence Ann Patchett writes is a brick—nothing except the essentials. Every brick she lays fits the previous one like a brick should—perfectly. Every perfect fit builds a sturdy building till she has her completed project, and there is nothing you can do but sit in awe and gaze at how magnificent and firm it is. I have never once regretted a word she used, or thought that she could have written the sentence better. I have never gone into editor mode when I read her. She is a rare breed of writer that gets out of the way of the story and lets a reader be just that—a reader. She is, for this reason, one of my favorite writers. 

Her most recent novel, Commonwealth, came out just a few weeks ago. I didn’t even know she had another book coming out, but when my Twitter feed started to have Ann Patchett’s name in every other tweet, I got as excited as most people do when they hear the new Star Wars is coming out. 

The very first book I read by Ann Patchett was Bel Canto. I read most of this book on a bus, and I had to tell my bus-mate that I was okay after I kept sighing and groaning because of how it ends. I actually hugged that book—something I rarely do. And it is because of that book that I listen to opera. 

But I’m always hesitant to read a second book by an author I love for fear that the other books the author writes won’t be as magical as the first. So it took me a few months to pick up the novel she wrote in 2008, Run. And while that book wasn’t quite as incredible as Bel Canto, it still was immensely well-written and enjoyable to read. 

When I took the chance again and bought Commonwealth, I was both nervous it wouldn’t be as good as her other work and excited at the prospect that if it was half as good as what she normally write, it would be a pleasure to read. 

The novel centers on three generations of a fractured family. The opening chapter brings us into a party where Fix Keating and his wife Beverly are celebrating the christening of their youngest daughter Franny. The house bulges as everyone in the town seems to have been invited. Yet the one person who wasn’t invited—Bert Cousins—is the one person who shows up at the front door of the house, with a bottle of gin in his jacket. The night progresses and the novel is thrust into motion when Bert kisses Beverly at the end of the night. This begins the merging of their families along with the dissolution of both of their marriages. 

Something as small as a kiss can ruin a life and ruin the other lives around you.
Jon Minnema

This novel feels a bit like One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the same way that an entire town rose and fell in a matter of years, so it is the same with the families in Commonwealth. You see how the things they do have huge implications for how their children behave and how their exes treat them. It’s even a potential contribution toward the death of one of their children.

It’s through the inner workings of what happens in the families that most readers will start to feel a little anxious at how fragile everything in life might seem. Something as small as a kiss can ruin a life and ruin the other lives around you. And it is just that in One Hundred Years of Solitude too. 

But there is also a beautiful hope in this novel. And even though everything is so dysfunctional, the reader can still see glimmers of it through certain characters and their actions. Yet Patchett is a hope-squasher—just when things seem to start going well, you realize that things are actually just starting to go horribly bad. Good things don’t lead to better things with Patchett; good things lead to worse things. People die when there is no hint of death coming. Right when things start looking up, Patchett starts bringing the reader down. 

Patchett is too good at tugging the heart. She knows how to paint a very real, yet very tidy picture of the world. Yet her writing is so good it doesn’t feel as if anything in the world is wrong. It’s almost so good that it’s distracting from what I should really be feeling.

I felt as if Commonwealth was Patchett’s most tactful book.
Jon Minnema

When she, for example, writes the sentence, “The two sisters were connected by neither love nor mutual affinity but by a very small bathroom that could be entered from the bedroom on either side,” I am angry that I’m laughing. It is a genuinely funny sentence. But this sentence is almost like a drug for what is actually going on—the two sisters hate each other. 

I felt as if Commonwealth was Patchett’s most tactful book. The sentences gave a different impression of what reality was really like. In a chapter where someone unexpectedly dies, I had to re-read it because I thought I had missed something because of how casually she handles it. It was like she was saying, “This is death, this stuff happens all the time, who cares if it’s by a gun or a bee sting.”

I think Patchett has actually graduated in her writing—something I never thought was even possible—by becoming a subtle, crafty writer who not only manipulates how you read the novel but manipulates your own feelings toward certain characters without you even realizing it. She took down conventional wisdom about how novels should be structured and what you should do in writing, and she just painted a very real picture of reality for this family. 

Bel Canto was a brilliant novel because Patchett had a love—opera—and she poured every ounce of her love for it into that book. It was beautiful because sentences she wrote praised opera in such a unique way that there was nothing I could do but listen to opera after I read it.

Commonwealth, on the other hand, is a whole different level of good simply for the reason that I cannot stop thinking about it—and it’s been a few weeks since I’ve finished it. Patchett is an author you must read.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the managing editor for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

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