A Beautiful and Touching Novel: Commonwealth

I have reported on other favorites (here and here), but my favorite author is Ann Patchett. I’ve read all of her novels and her books of essays. When I see them, I devour her columns in the Wall Street Journal.

I love everything she has written. My favorite of her novels was her first one (although not the one I read first), The Patron Saint of Liars. My second favorite was The Magician’s Assistant. These are books I could read over and over again. I know Bel Canto and State of Wonder were bigger sellers, but I prefer tales from familiar neighborhoods over those with global intrigue. In every case, she is a master story teller and a brilliant writer. I can fall in love with a book just for the characters, but she has characters and a story. Her endings are invariably brilliant.

I also really loved This is The Story of a Happy Marriage, her recent book of essays. Her description of her writing process is breathtaking.

I make up a novel in my head…the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. When I can’t think of another stall, . . . I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. . . . I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. . . . [I]t’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. . . . Dead. That’s my book. . . . People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know. Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

Whoa. Exhale. Loyal readers of my blog (hello, mom!) will know that my favorite book, and therefore my favorite book about writing, is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Anne Lamott’s pep talks about getting going and keeping going, self-loathing, progress, and, heaven forbid, happiness, all ring true for me. Ann Patchett’s butterfly? I don’t have one of those. Which is what makes her description of it so captivating. “Really?” I think. “A nirvanic butterfly?” I wonder what that is like. Ecstasy and torture together, apparently. Nothing so dramatic for my writing.

From reading Happy Marriage, I recognize autobiographical elements in Commonwealth. Her father was a police officer in Southern California. She went to Catholic school. Her parents were divorced, and she and her sister traveled to stay with her large step-family in the summers. Family times, especially Christmas, were strained.

The plot of Commonwealth is involved and complex: at least ten characters to keep track of, and five decades to span. But the writing is exquisite, even if not as exquisite as the pre-verbal version in her imagination. And she manages to give a new perspective on time-tested themes of the messiness of love and family and relationships. In a clever gambit, the plot features the publication of a novel called Commonwealth. This book overshares intimate details of a character’s life. She’s winking to the reader with this self-reference.

This book shows so many kinds of love: a parent’s love for children; the passion of romantic love; and the more-complicated love for an aging, ailing parent or a troubled sibling. One wouldn’t necessarily want to sign up for membership in the Cousins’ and Keatings’ blended family. But the hours I spent with them were pure reading joy, seeing as how they were safely inscribed and captive on the flat page.

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