CommonwealthAnn Patchett, 2016
I finished this book in hopes that there was going to be some payoff at the end for the long slog it was. But I am still mystified at the heaps of praise it has received – “exquisite” (NYT), “a transporting experience” (LA Times), and on and on. What is there that has captivated this A-list of critics, other than the inevitability of praise for someone who has won all the accolades this writer has? Book reviewers seem to have the same herd mentality that we associate with Wall Street and silicon valley and fashion week.
Because what it is, is simply a long saga exploring different states of siblinghood. Two couples that divorce, remarry, remarry again, as seen through the eyes of their children from their first marriages, over the course of their lives. Threading it, to provide some suspense, is the death of one of the teenage sons under circumstances that are hinted to be transgressive and shocking but in the end are finally revealed to be comparatively pedestrian, if still sad and unfortunate. Where are the “keen insights”, the “minimalism” that the esteemed critics see? I am bemused.
The main sibling characters mostly failed to arouse my sympathy – and worse, the two girls whose pov is taken (Jeannette and Franny) are almost indistinguishable in their voices. As is often the case in novels like these, it’s the men who are the worst, either selfish (Bert, the philandering father), blind (Fix, the cuckolded father), addicted (Albie, the confused son), hopelessly angry (Cal, who drugs Albie), or manipulative bastards (Leo, the famous older writer who Franny falls for).
The women can be catty or overwhelmed, but not fundamentally flawed or malicious. And in that sense, I suspect that is why the novel itself is weak. It subconsciously guides us to take the side of the women, and in doing so loses the power that comes to a narrative from villains and flawed heroes – since these are actually located in the other gender.
The characters that did intrigue me were in fact some of the side roles: Bonnie, the easily drunk, good-looking sister overshadowed by her movie-star beautiful sister Beverly; the priest who dances with her at the christening party in the opening chapter; Jeannette’s Guinean husband and baby; Franny’s Indian husband and kids. Unfortunately, these are merely cardboard characters, quickly sketched and equally quickly discarded. In fact the characterizations of Jeannette’s and Franny’s husband skate close to being convenient, multi-culti tokens designed to make the narrative feel contemporary and the wives seem liberally open-minded and “interesting”.
The actual storyboarding is technically skillful. A complex set of family relationships is sketched with interleaving and nested flashbacks and flash-forwards. It doesn’t always work – until the end I had difficulty keeping straight which kids belonged to which parent, and the last chapter, somewhat irrelevantly, brings in still more siblings out of the blue – but generally it is quite accomplished. The suspense of the teenage son’s death is dosed out with great finesse, Perhaps that is what the reviewers were responding to. But, for all the technique, and all the finesse, there seems to be nothing substantial at the core. Inadvertently, that may be the real message, the emptiness at the center of fragmented, confusing, modern American lives.