American author Ann Patchett is a former winner of the UK Orange Prize for fiction for 2002’s “Bel Canto”. Her family-themed novels have seen her compared to two other Queen Annes, prize-winning titans of modern fiction both, Ms. Tyler and Ms. Enright. With this, her seventh novel she gives them a good run for their money but doesn’t quite eclipse them in the quality fiction stakes.
I have never read Ann Patchett before but this book I had earmarked to read since publication because of its impressive initial reviews (“Outstanding” (The Observer)/”Dazzling” (The Sunday Times). When I pulled out “Read a book by an author whose surname begins with a P” from the Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library this seemed an obvious choice.
I always think I’m going to feel alienated by the Americanness of tales about family life but Anne Tyler has really drawn me in with hers on more than one occasion. It’s the quality of her writing that does it and this is necessary to convey the complexities of family relationships in a way which feels both honest and convincing. With “Commonwealth” Ann Patchett also succeeds with this.
We begin in 1964 at a Christening Party for Los Angeles Cop Fix Keating’s daughter Franny. One of the guests falls for Franny’s mother and lives shift from this point. Two families of step-children meet each summer including Franny and her sister Caroline and a tragedy further complicates family relations. Fast forward to 1988 when Franny is working a waitress in Chicago and she meets a writer who takes her family’s story to use in his own work, also called “Commonwealth”. Although Franny is probably the central character her parents’ generation of family together with her sister and step-siblings are all well fleshed out.
Plot-wise there are not too many surprises, which is why, just on the showing of this novel I will put Anne Tyler slightly ahead but anyone who has enjoyed novels such as the bestselling “Spool of Blue Thread” (one of my essential reads) should certainly seek “Commonwealth” out.
“Commonwealth” was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.