Likely Stories: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Jun 13, 2019

A tangled story of two families, intertwined by divorce and marriage

I'm Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Numerous individuals have urged me to read something by Ann Patchett.  But I could not uncover some special character or an interesting idea to grab onto.  I decided to forgo my Rule of 50 as a test of the efficacy of that rule.  Commonwealth is Patchett’s tenth novel.  According to the dust jacket, Ann Patchett has authored nine novels and three works of non-fiction. She was the editor of The Best American Short Stories: 2006.  She has won numerous awards, notably the PEN/Faulkner and the Orange Prize for Fiction.  She has been translated into more than 30 languages.  She co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and their dog, Sparky.

The story comprises three parts: the first is the intro duction to two families and a half dozen children.  Part Two mixes all these individuals.  Finally, the last is an extensive examination of these people as the family fragments and falls apart.  I had a difficult time keeping the family’s names and relations straight.  I began to understand the makeup of the family just as Part Three re-tangled them all together.  (more)

The most interesting part of the story involves Franny, who is a bartender.  One day, a man she recognizes comes into the bar.  As Patchett writes, “‘Hello,’ he said.  Leon Posner, sitting two seats away from her.  He was wearing a dark-gray suit and a white shirt with only the top button of his collar undone.  He may well have had a tie folded in his pocket.  Had he reached out his hand and she reached out her hand their fingers very easily could have touched.  As a rule, Franny didn’t pay much attention to the people at the bar” (97).  They begin a mildly funny discussion about shoes and their effect on Franny’s customers.  She knew he was a famous author, and Franny was an avid reader.  The list of books she reads is quite interesting.  For example, Kristen Lavransdatter David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The World According to Garp, and the Brontë sisters.”

Franny also aspired to becom a lawyer, but after two of three years in law school, she dropped out.  Patchett writes, “‘People will tell you that law school is about learning to think, but it’s not.  It’s about learning to memorize.’  He held up his hand and counted off on his fingers, ‘Negligence, wrongful death, invasion of privacy, libel, non-criminal trespass…’  [Her sister] Caroline took notes.  Franny read” (127.  Franny much prefers reading. 

One of the important elements of the story details the death of one of the characters.  Some of the children found a gun in the glove compartment of a car.  What happens to the gun and the child seems to waver from one person to the next.  Some claim to have witnessed the event, others deny being anywhere in the area.

As a piece of advice in stories like these, I think detailed family trees would be most helpful.  Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, does have its moments.  Fanny is a strong, interesting character.  Her story is compelling and worth untangling her story alone.  4 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!