Armchair Book Club: Commonwealth

Heather Allen explores the latest novel from author Ann Patchett, Commonwealth.

Ann Patchett has a gift for writing books that, no matter the topic, are easy to settle into and enjoy. Readers will probably remember her novel Bel Canto, so successful that after winning numerous prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction, it was made into a full scale opera last year.

Patchett’s writing is agreeable, smart and poignant, making her a staple for book club discussions. In fact her books, including the seventh novel published this fall, tend to have book club Q/A attached to the end notes.

Her new novel, Commonwealth, opens at a Los Angeles baptismal party in the 1960s. Bert, a district attorney, hasn’t been invited, but nonetheless turns up at the reception with an unusual baby gift – a huge bottle of gin. From that moment, it becomes one of those parties where conventions are turned upside down, and everyone senses that something unforgettable is about to happen.

The gin begins flowing. Neighbours run home to pick pillowcases full of oranges for mix. The priest forgets himself and falls into the arms of the baby’s aunt. And, over the baby change table, the mother steals a kiss from the stranger who brought the gin.

Years later, the events of that party continue to reverberate. Life gets complicated for the mother and the stranger who became her new husband, including divorce, remarriage, and a string of children and step children, some who live nearby, others who live across the continent.

The six stepchildren (including the baby from the baptism) spend unsupervised summers together. They get up to all kinds of misadventures, including stealing guns and alcohol. But it isn’t a high risk event that turns the story. It’s something as simple as a bee sting in a field of grass, with the Benadryl already used up to keep the annoying youngest sibling quiet.

Patchett explores all the ways the pleasant-sounding euphemism ‘blended family’ brings joy but also unwanted complexity, deep resentment, bitterness and even hate.

Commonwealth is the story of individual families, but as usual with Patchett, she has grander themes to explore. Starting with the idea of commonwealth – those uneasy unions of anything from countries to families — Patchett has put together the best portrait of sibling relationships I have read in a long time.