Two paragraphs into Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I decided I had to cancel all my weekend plans. There were 255 pages in between me and the conclusion of the story, which seemed like a much more necessary journey to take than anything else I had to do those next two days.
Of course, I didn’t cancel my plans. I’m not that crazy. But as I socialized and concertized and ate and laughed with friends, part of my mind was back with the Cousinses and the Keatings, and the great question at the heart of all my favorite books — what the heck is going to happen next?
As John Irving suggested in the novel The World According to Garp, we read because we want to answer that question. But what Irving didn’t mention in his book is that the story ought to be carried out beautifully. Because as any fiction reader can tell you, good prose makes life digestible. That’s why we read, of course. A book is the great Chipping Away, that knife’s edge that separates the gunk from the things that matter. Writers take proverbial marble of life and distill it to something that is almost truer than life . But unlike sculptors, authors chip away at the marble by “building up.” What does an author pay attention to? Who gets the spotlight, and who gets perspective? What the heck are all these slow nature descriptions there for? These are the questions you wade through on your way to the heart of the book. Life is shown through the accumulation of the right words.
I always end up philosophizing instead of writing about the book. By that long-winded paragraph I mean to say, Patchett just CHOSE THE RIGHT WORDS! And boy does she pull off a story. The story’s inciting incident happens only twenty pages in, so I won’t be spoiling too much (it’s on the jacket cover, for all you skeptics). Bert Cousins, an L.A. district attorney, shows up to police officer Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party. Amongst the crowd of cops and their wives getting slowly drunk and drunker on the gin Bert Cousins brought, Bert decides that Beverly Keating, Fix’s young wife, is the start of his future. They kiss — and so it begins. Bert’s four children and Beverly’s two children and forever orbiting one another as their families pull a switcheroo. But the kicker happens when, years later, Franny begins an affair with a famous author with a decades-long inspiration dry spell. And when he hears the crazy story of Franny’s upbringing, he has his next novel.
The novel is very ambitious in scope, spanning multiple perspectives, jumping around in time. Ann Patchett manages this by embedding news of the “big events” into the casual vignettes that make up the book. She’s juggling the entire lives of so many characters (Franny’s storyline goes from her christening party to when she’s middle-aged!) so there’s not enough room for each momentous occasion to be described in scene. Patchett masterfully ties up entire progressions in people’s lives in one sentence, and chooses to focus on smaller moments that actually define lifetimes. It reminds me a lot of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse.
This book is also so appealing because it’s about a dysfunctional family, but written by someone who clearly believes in family. Each character is redeemable. And they all love each other.
Anyway, this is the book I’m going to be urging everyone I meet to read for the next few months. Move over, Elena Ferrante (sorry!)
Read Commonwealth and then come talk to me about it!