Thursday, February 23, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

"I like Los Angeles." In Los Angeles she was always a child. She swam the length of Marjorie's mother's pool, skimming its blue bottom in her two-piece bathing suit. The shadow of Caroline, half-asleep on her inflatable raft, was a rectangular cloud above her. Their father was just at the water's edge in a lounge chair reading The Godfather. 
Commonwealth intertwines the story of two families, split apart and merged together when the mother of one and the father of the other fall in love, leave their spouses, and marry. The children (four from one marriage, two from the other) are thrust together in a darker, modern day Brady Bunch scenario, and the novel tracks them from infancy to adulthood.

The family saga layer of this novel is fantastic. There is mystery and intrigue, the characters are sufficiently fleshed out (none of them is too saccharine or awful), and the narration weaves through time effortlessly without losing the reader. But because it's Ann Patchett, there is a layer of darkness running under that narrative that makes it that much more compelling. There were subtle moments--the casual mistreatment of a sibling--and overarching tragedies that hold the book together and make it pack a serious emotional punch.

The sibling and step-sibling relationships in this novel are simultaneously perfect and heart-breaking. They're brutal and loving within the space of a paragraph, and the every day cruelties and kindnesses that come with those relationships are perfectly captured. Those ties become especially valuable and fraught in divorced families, and Patchett nails that tension. There is a central betrayal (revealed on the back of the book, but I won't describe here because I wish I hadn't known going in) which is artfully described in all of its guilty splendor and ripple effects. One of my favorite moments, late in the novel, came when two of the sisters are navigating the inevitable and painful aging of a parent. One of them has spent the day bossing everyone around and subtly sniping at every turn, but after a particularly painful moment, her sister gives us this:
Franny gave her sister a tired smile. "Oh, my love," she said. "What do the only children do?"
"We'll never have to know," Caroline said.
The torturous unconditional love of sisters (and brothers and step-siblings) is woven throughout and is just brutal enough that it manages not to be cliche.

I loved this one. The story was fabulous and dark and emotionally engaging, and the many, many lives impacted by the divorce and other assorted tragedies are beautifully captured. I was especially impressed by how nuanced all the various family relationships were able to be.

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