Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Bert Cousins is a shit. There’s no other way of saying it. He’s a shit husband, a shit father and a serial philanderer. He concocts ways of spending as much time as possible away from his missus and three, soon to be four, children. He works long hours and turns up uninvited at parties, just so he he can have a continual break from paternal responsibilities. At one such party, thrown by cop Fix Keating, he meets his host’s wife. He is immediately smitten, kisses her in a darkened room and two years later he’s moved from California to Virginia. He is now married to Fix’s Beverley. Their new state is one of four in the US that terms itself a commonwealth – like us; thus, partly, Ann Patchett’s title. Her expansive tome is a detailing of the long term repercussions of Bert’s stolen kiss for both participants, their deserted spouses and their six blended children.

Patchett deftly weaves back and forwards through time to bring the reader vignettes of life for the various family members post-pash, with a focus on Fanny, Fix and Bev’s daughter. She’s a cocktail waitress who falls for a much older man, author Leon Posen. She confides to him the stormy story of the two entwined family’s tentative co-existence and the childhood event that rocked all of them to the core. Unfortunately for her Posen, who had been under the curse of writer’s block, suddenly defrosts and scribes a novel based on Fanny’s revelations. The proverbial hits the fan when his work becomes a mega-hit on the book-stands. It – and how clever is this – is titled ‘Commonwealth’ too. It cannot be doubted that Ms P’s ‘Commonwealth’ is a terrific book as well – it had me hooked from the first page and I’ll be definitely seeking out her back catalogue, including the well-gonged ‘Bel Canto’.

The tome has much to say about the American state of mind – especially where it concerns parental accountability and the ever-present illogicality of their gun culture. No character escapes a very close examination by our author, with few emerging squeaky clean. There’s some lovely writing here – a mother/daughter reunion in a Swiss commune, the adventures of kids free in a less restrictive age and a positive take on inter-racial marriage in a state once noted for its miscegenation laws. And in ‘Commonwealth’ we even receive a reference to the parlous state of our own Tassie devils – page 279.

I don’t think miracles occurred for me as the New York Times stated they would if I read this marvellous product of Patchett’s skills, but I certainly found it to be ‘…generous, fearless and startlingly wise…’ too, just as that august broadsheet promised.

The author’s website = http://www.annpatchett.com/

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