Family Drama: Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

I enjoyed reading Commonwealth: I was engaged all the way through. But I was never gripped by it. I kept waiting for it to go deeper, or get darker, and it just stayed the same: the prose is cool, almost detached, the diffuse ingredients assembled with that air of meaningful randomness that seems to govern a lot of contemporary novels. Why this detail, this memory, this connection, right now? Why tack back into the past at this point, and then skip forward again? Where are we going? The transparent assumption is that simply laying out the story in chronological order isn’t interesting or artful enough, and that can certain be true. Also, sometimes things are dispersed like this so that the climax or revelation comes upon us unexpectedly, or so that the crisis is discerned in its effects before it actually breaks over us, the readers. That’s sort of what goes on in Commonwealth, but maybe because I’m rereading Bleak House right now, I felt a lack of central purpose in Patchett’s novel: I’m fine with a lot of moving parts, but I didn’t feel hers were in service of a deeply felt meaning.

To be fair, I don’t actually think Commonwealth is a swing and a miss at a more profound type of novel. It’s a novel about family drama, so relatively small in scale, and it is sharp in its insights into the ways people come together and move apart. Even allowing for that, I do think Commonwealth isn’t really excellent of its kind. There is a crisis at the heart of Commonwealth — two, I suppose, a tragedy and its exposure — but Patchett never made either of them feel urgent to me. I was interested, sometimes amused, sometimes touched, by the tangle of family relationships Commonwealth presents — and nothing more. This can be enough, of course: there are plenty of books I like a lot that are similar. Is that the real problem, maybe? that Commonwealth slots in too easily in among many similar novels by, say, Anne Tyler or Joanna Trollope? To me, it didn’t really seem to stand out either stylistically or thematically: its effect on me is already fading.

I don’t mean to sound unduly negative about it. I did think it was a good novel; I was just hoping, even expecting, that it would be better than good. Probably it’s another case of my expectations being raised unreasonably by the generally effusive reception it got, or maybe I just read it too soon after A Spool of Blue Thread to appreciate another novel more or less in the same tone and vein. (Or maybe I just read it badly and missed whatever made it special.) Because Commonwealth turns in part on the death of child, too, I can’t help comparing it unfavorably to my favorite novel in the ‘family saga’ genre, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. I hardly cared at all about the loss in Commonwealth, while the tragedy in Schwartz’s novel still breaks my heart every time I read it — really, every time I think about it. There’s an emotional intensity in Schwartz’s novel that for me was completely missing in Commonwealth: the whole thing had a more or less flat affect, which felt a little too safe to me, as if Patchett was deliberately steering away from the rapids, or the depths.

I’m uneasy about my own experience of Commonwealth, as you can probably tell, especially as I only just wrote a much more forgiving post about A Spool of Blue Thread. In that post I explicitly welcomed the familiarity of Tyler’s novel — and here I am complaining, if mildly, because Commonwealth didn’t provoke, startle, or particularly delight me. There’s nothing with perfectly good novels! I like family dramas, too: we need them, and not just because a steady diet of books like The Orphan Master’s Son, or King Hereafter, or Hild, or Wolf Hall would be debilitatingly rich. I’m a firm believer in the significance of small-scale stories. Their importance can be harder to discern at first, though. I didn’t really appreciate Unless until I reread it: maybe it will be the same way with Commonwealth.

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7 Responses to Family Drama: Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

  1. Theresa says:

    Now I’m not so disappointed that I’m number 500-something on the library hold list for this novel!

  2. The answer to your “why” questions is that Patchett is clumsily imitating writers who do use those devices in artful and interesting ways. The devices are à la mode, and can be scattered on a conventional story like glitter.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      She may be artfully doing the same thing and I just failed to appreciate her application of those devices. But maybe one reason I felt happier about Tyler’s novel (without having explicitly had this thought at the time) is that Tyler has always written novels basically like that, so I believe in her sincerity about the form. Also, maybe she gets a bit less credit for it, for the same reason, whereas Patchett seems to be basking in a lot of approval for her version.

    • Maybe. Did you see the post on Patchett by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat?

      The Switzerland section of the novel was, for promotion, published separately, as if it were a short story. You will be able to see why I am skeptical about the level of attention Patchett gives to her details.

      Even then, who knows, perhaps the whole thing is meant to be a demonstration of Beaudrillard, where the character experiences not Switzerland but a simulacrum of Switzerland.

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        That post is fascinating. It is partly devastating – those do sound like unforgivably lazy errors, and they should sow mistrust, although as some people point out in the comments, who knows how many similar errors we all skim happily past because we just don’t know enough ourselves to notice them. That, of course, is exactly one reason why authors should themselves be more responsible! They owe it to us. But at the same time I think there is some truth to the “but it’s fiction” defense. The question is at what point we insist on drawing a line, or for what reason: is it a genre issue, for instance? or is it about whether slips or errors or deliberate fabrications serve a thematic purpose? or about whether otherwise the book is so good we can shrug off some little things? This is a question that comes up particularly about historical fiction. And what about novels about “real” historical people? Must they follow exactly the life story as far as it is known to have happened?

        I expect we’d all draw different lines at least some of the time. What errors distract us or prove unforgivable are bound to be partly the result of what we know well or care a lot about. I found Zadie Smith’s On Beauty hard to believe in as a novel because it got so many things “wrong” about academia. Similarly, I could not keep reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History because the whole set-up of the professor’s seminar in the first chapter was so unlike how class enrollments actually work at any real college I’ve ever heard of.

  3. Nicola says:

    I couldn’t get on with Commonwealth, either. I’m an exact contemporary of Ann Patchett and yet the scenes set in the 1970’s didn’t feel like that era to me. Also, I didn’t seen the point of introducing new characters at the party in the final chapter. I think I prefer Patchett’s non-fiction. Truth and Beauty was a very good memoir.

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