Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

I’ve never read Ann Patchett before. Actually, I lie. I tried to read Bel Canto and didn’t finish it. I think now I know why. Given the five-star reviews I see everywhere and the deluge of praise on all my social media apps, my review here won’t be popular.

Commonwealth commonwealthhad an interesting premise: guy crashes an acquaintance’s christening party, flirts with the acquaintance’s wife, and begins an affair with her. Divorce is inevitable, families are ripped apart. As a reader, you think: here it comes! But really, not so much. The two families kinda, sorta work it out, the kids spend time with both families, everything seems to settle down. Yawn.

The story, surprisingly, wasn’t boring. This ability of the reader to stay focused and not indulge in mind-wandering or paragraph-skimming is undoubtedly due to Patchett’s skill. In the hands of a lesser writer I would have bailed on the book about 1/3 of the way in, but Patchett manages to make the story interesting, perhaps because the reader is led to believe that more story is coming. The thing is though, it never shows up.

There were so many characters: the four divorced parents, all their children (were there six of them?), the spouses of subsequent marriages, and then, later, the kids from those other spouses. I honestly needed a kinship chart. I could barely remember which kid went with which parent.

I did appreciate the themes explored here: divorce, and its effect on the kids once they were adults; the sadness of aging, ailing parents; the nagging lack of self-respect if your career peters out. The main protagonist, Franny, was sympathetic, and I could relate to her.

This depth of human empathy, however, does not make up for the lack of story. There’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t have the impact I’d hoped for. The tragedy is told in retrospect, which moves the reader a step away from feeling anything. This event could have been powerful; this unexpected moment could have made me invested in these characters. Instead, all I think is, “Oh, so that’s what happened. Okay.”

There is no Big Reveal, no Huge Family Argument, no Gasp of Denouement. It just peters out with a shrug of “yep, that’s my family.” Eh.

I’m not giving up on Ann Patchett, though. I’m having another go at Bel Canto. She is such a great novelist that I know there’s another book out there of hers that I’ll love.

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