Magazine article The Spectator

'Commonwealth', by Ann Patchett - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Commonwealth', by Ann Patchett - Review

Article excerpt

Ann Patchett's new novel is an American family saga involving six children, 50 years and too many coincidences to count. The premise is straight out of John Updike -- a writer she admires -- but her eye is on free love's fallout, not its thrills. As the title hints, she's interested in the larger family units that itchy-footed spouse-swappers inadvertently create when they do the dirty on their kin.

It opens with Bert, a father of three with another baby on the way, sneaking a kiss from Beverly, a married woman hosting a christening party for her second child, Frances. They're drunk and it's the Sixties; eventually Beverly ditches her husband, Fix, a Los Angeles cop, to set up home with Bert on the other side of the country -- an idea that palls when she's lumbered with his kids every summer.

Apparently Commonwealth draws on Patchett's own family, and its structure, perhaps conveniently, avoids her having to inspect the cast's motives too closely. She fast-forwards and rewinds at random through a half-century time span: the chapter straight after the christening party shows Fix having chemotherapy in his eighties with middle-aged Franny (baby Frances) at his bedside.

Franny makes the novel tick. She's working as a cocktail waitress in 1980s Chicago when her favourite writer, Leo Posen, turns up asking for a scotch and a hand back to his hotel room. Franny obliges -- her work get-up makes her look like 'the music-video version of the Catholic schoolgirl she'd once been' -- but it's the subsequent pillow talk about her stepbrothers (one dead tragically early, the other a delinquent with a history of arson) that does most to get Leo's juices flowing. …

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