Commonwealth: A Novel by Ann Patchett

commonwealth
HarperCollins, 2016

One of the curses and joys of working in a library is that you cannot keep up with reading all of the books you would like to read and learning more about all the authors you discover. And if you are a buyer for your library, the problem is even worse. I know a little about a wealth of authors (enough to make a decision to buy the latest book) and then I move along to more authors and titles. In library world, books are a river! For some reason in the last week or so the time came for me to finally make time for Ann Patchett and her novel Commonwealth. To complete the metaphor, this was like landing on a wonderful island full of adventures and interesting characters.

The novel follows two families who crash into one another (metaphorically) at a child’s christening party. Bert Cousins attends an event for a work colleague to whom he is only tangentially acquainted and within hours the trajectory of the Cousins and Keating families is changed forever. The novel follows the two families over the next five decades. In 300 or so pages, Patchett weaves together the truly genuine and captivating  adventures of all four parents and six children. The action ping pongs from Virginia to California and ultimately around the world. Such is the nature of large families.

Along the way, Franny, the child at the christening, becomes involved with Leon Posen, a successful novelist who has found himself a little low on inspiration. Franny’s family life, full of siblings, step-siblings, parents and step-parents, captures his attention. These borrowed family stories become the basis of his next runaway successful novel. And because we are in America, the novel becomes a movie. Commonwealth explores the ideas of inspiration and creativity. Who owns a family story? What place does the individual have within a family? How do you carve out your own space and are you entitled to that space? In my own family I am the 7th of 10 children and I know the challenges and joys of an extended family. Who gets to tell the “story” and how do you control it once it is out there are very real questions for me and Ann Patchett does a wonderful job of playing with these ideas.

In the periphery of my knowledge about Ann Patchett I knew that she was also a book seller. This week I made time to visit her author website annpatchett.com and learned more about her and the charming bookshop she owns and operates in Nashville. The shop is called Parnassus Books and they even have a mobile which is, of course, called “Parnassus on Wheels”  (inspired by another great novel with the same name). I heartily recommend stopping by the “island” of Ann Patchett’s novel and I think I will plan another vacation in Patchett world soon–and maybe even a vacation to Nashville and Parnassus Books!

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