This book was one of those that I liked, but I also didn’t much like it, or at least I didn’t really like or understand the characters in it. Yes, that’s it exactly. I didn’t understand a single one of the many characters in this book. And that’s not entirely my fault.
In Commonwealth, one of the children of a blended family falls in love with a much older writer and ends up telling him stories about her childhood. And he ends up writing a best-selling book based on that childhood. In the book-in-a-book, the children are portrayed as horrible human beings, in part because they all hated each other (and the cheating parent) and so were terrible to each other (and the cheating parent). But, they were the most terrible to the youngest boy, Albie, whom they regularly drugged with Benadryl so they could leave him and go play without him. And, by play, I mean fight and be mean to each other.
There are, of course, repercussions to drugging unwitting children, to cheating on your spouses, and to telling an author your life story. Commonwealth explores those repercussions. But, in a kind of different, almost roundabout way.
What I mean by that is, when you’re reading Commonwealth, it feels like it’s not really about much. Even the dramatic moments are either skipped, or sort of told from the side, in flashbacks or from the POV of a tertiary character. And that removal makes those moments feel like they aren’t much either. And while I guess that Franny, the girlfriend of the writer and the child at whose christening party the cheating parents met, could be considered the main character, it doesn’t feel like a story about Franny. In fact, when Franny finally marries, we find out why her husband, Kamal, wants to marry her, but not about why Franny marries him.
So, it’s a story about a family (well, two families, actually). And it’s about their actions, and the repercussions of those actions, but not necessarily about what drives the actions. It starts with Bert attending Franny’s christening party where he ends up kissing Franny’s mother, Beverly. But, we never find out why. I mean, we know he thinks she’s beautiful (everyone does) and he admires the fact that she’s maintained her beauty (and her figure) after two kids, but we don’t really know why he kisses her. And we never even get a hint of why she kisses him back.
Still, I thought this was a very good book. Somehow, it manages to be both not about much and interesting as hell. And, once it got going, it was hard to put down. It’s not my favorite Ann Patchett (that distinction belongs to Bel Canto), but I can’t stop thinking about it and I’ll probably end up re-reading it at some point because it really was that interesting.