The problem with reviewing a book that you love is that it is often hard to describe just why you like the book so much – the usual adages of ‘good characterisations’, ‘innovative plot line’ and ‘page-turning entertainment’ are the obvious explanations, but often that is simply not enough. This is especially the case when the book is written by someone like Ann Patchett, whose ability to quietly create a masterpiece has already been proven in many of her previous novels, including The State of Wonder and Bel Canto.
In her latest novel, Commonwealth, Patchett shows how a moment in time – and the choices made in that moment – can alter everything for generations to come. The novel opens to a suburban Los Angeles on a hot summer’s day, a baby’s christening party, and an uninvited guest who joins the party with a large bottle of gin tucked under his arm. As more bottles of alcohol are procured from the neighbourhood houses, and oranges are squeezed in the kitchen, there is a quiet undertone that things from here on in will never be the same.
Fourty-odd years later the father of the baby is dying of cancer, and as the now grown up baby from the christening party, Franny, sits by her father in hospital, the past and present intertwine, and a conversation with her – occasionally not very lucid – father marks the point at which the narrative dives back into the past. From here on in the story of what happened after the party is told through a range of characters, in particular through the eyes of the six children, who have lived with the aftermath of the christening party.
Like an intricately fashioned tapestry, the narrative is woven in and out of viewpoints, and moments in the characters’ lives. Patchett delivers small, but meaningful, windows into the patchwork that makes up the larger story, which – under a less skilled writer’s guidance – could be a fairly predictable story of adultery and the dissolution of two marriages, but which under Patchett takes on the whole macrocosm of humanity in such an understated way, that the reader never quite knows where the richness of the narrative came from.
Possibly the secret of this novel is that Patchett understands the subtleties of human emotions, the subtleties of human frailty and the gaps that we have in understanding how we relate to one another. Patchett is a sympathetic creator of her characters – foibles, weaknesses and mistakes are always framed within a context that shows that nothing happens in isolation – the ripples created by our actions are maybe unpredictable, but they are also forgivingly human, and the novel seems to suggest that it is not the big dramatic moments that define who we are, but the minuscule , seemingly unimportant moments of our lives, small moments where we relate to each other as humans, and which are plentifully shown throughout the novel.
Commonwealth is a beautifully crafted novel that is a gentle, yet evocative and poignant exploration of how love, forgiveness and understanding are all part of a long journey, on which there are no shortcuts. For this alone, Commonwealth stands strongly, and highly commendably, among the body of Patchett’s significant literary achievements to date.