Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

By: Jen Shoop

In my post on reading slumps and how to get out of them, I wrote: “I need a Dutch House or a Ruth Ware, please and thank you,” and one of you reasonably replied: “I’d turn to Patchett herself to deliver a Dutch House-like read — Commonwealth or State of Wonder!” Thank you, eternally, Joyce, for the nudge.

Oh, Commonwealth.

Like The Dutch House, Commonwealth glides by, quiet and elegant in tenor, as Patchett delicately interrogates the ins and outs of family dynamics in settings so convincingly captured in precise language that I can’t believe I didn’t once spend a night at Leo Posen’s rented house in Amagansett, or prop my feet up against that stone hearth in Bert Cousins’ home in Arlington. The characters are nothing short of stunning in both their believability (don’t I know Franny and Caroline Keating?) and in the profound (and profoundly-captured) ways in which they feel and love their way through their complicated lives. Patchett is superb. She is astonishing. She is capable of such memorable, likely-to-be-quoted-into-eternity lines as the one Fix delivers while battling metastasized cancer:

“People are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that. For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.”

But she is equally adept with the small details of life that show us, rather than tell us, who these rich characters truly are: the things they decide not to say, the nearly imperceptible shift in emotions when standing waiting for a mother at an airport in Switzerland, the unassuming tendernesses they bestow on their ailing or aging parents and siblings, performed reflexively and without expectation of gratitude.

And then there is the central, gaping loss of Cal, and the central, fusing force of Franny’s love and the way she persists in keeping the family together almost without thinking about it, just by virtue of being herself. Such beautiful symmetry, and so true to the way families can operate. I also enjoyed the metafictional elements introduced by the character of award-winning novelist Leo Posen and the way in which his presentation of the story of Franny’s childhood nearly competes with the novel unfolding before our eyes in Patchett’s hands. The final line about Franny “keeping something for herself” reified Patchett’s narrative as “the truth” or as true to life as art can be. Leo had missed something in his story because Franny had held it back, and yet we, as readers of Patchett’s work, were privy to that something and must remind ourselves: “This is all fiction.” What a gift, to build an imagined universe so realistic readers cannot believe it is not real. Commonwealth is trompe l’oeil in haute literary form!

That concluding line also made me think of Franny and the other characters in the novel as entities — spirits, forces — that can exist beyond the page, beyond the written word, and that we might never fully know them. There is, in short, something stirring and philosophical about the verisimilitude of her writing and her direct engagement with “real life” versus “fiction” in the plot line surrounding Franny and Leo.

Mainly, though: it was simply a joy to read. The language, the characters, the pace, the settings — I felt like I was waking from a delicious nap after I finished it, sitting still and quiet in a happy haze of satisfaction. With this book, Patchett cemented herself in my opinion as one of the best writers of our time.


+I actually listened to Commonwealth on audiobook, narrated by Hope Davis, and she did an incredible job narrating. Quite a feat given all the different characters! I especially loved the softness of her voice when reading the Beverly Keating bits. More of my favorite audiobooks here.

+You know I love a good shirtdress, and this one comes in great colors. Love the khaki and white stripe!

+Oh my goodness, I love this top in the blue!

+Just added these running shorts in the lilac color to my cart. Would look great with this running top from Lululemon in the coordinating pale purple. Who else likes a monochromatic exercise moment?

+This wrapped pitcher gets the look of Amanda Lindroth for much less!

+Shopbop just marked down a bunch of their beautiful Hunting Season bags. This is timeless.

+I bought this well-priced white dress for myself.

+In case you need to hear it: think of the howling wolves.

+I have been eyeing this Thierry Colson blouse for some time — you can get the look for less with this or this in the blue colorway.

+Gorgeous summer wrapping paper for a summer birthday.

+Also love the patterns of this wrapping paper — those blue hearts!

+A pretty and well-priced damask frame.

+My sister just gave me this award-winning facial mask, which she has been raving about. Can’t wait to try! Will report back in my next installment of honest reviews. (Most recent one here, including several items currently available at a discount thanks to Sephora’s spring sale!)

+Another recent installment in my book club series. I was stirred by how many of you are fans of Patricia Lockwood! Thanks, as always, for your comments.

+These quilted, scalloped shams would add such an interesting pop of high-end-designer-looking style to white bedding.

+Gorgeous planters.

+More chic backyard finds here.

+Angel of waters.

+People rave about this spray for removing stains from carpets. Have you tried it?

+A great gift for a new mom — I lived in my robe for those first weeks after my babies were born! I also like this short waffle weave one.

+Just the prettiest terracotta planter.

+Jammies that look a lot like my beloved Eberjeys at about half the price.

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16 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

  1. Oh, I loved Commonwealth when I read it a few years back! I was glad to revisit it in this post, especially as I’ve been sitting on your last book club post since I’m actually currently reading No One Is Talking About This and I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers!! But not to worry, I have it bookmarked in my inbox to weigh in once I’m finished 🙂

    How FUN are those Georgetown Paperie wrapping papers?! I’m looking for some similar but slightly more budget-friendly options for my stepdaughter’s summer birthday. I have found great ones in the past at HomeGoods (of all places!), which is not somewhere I frequent on a regular basis … but if you have a secret source for well-priced wrapping paper, I’d be curious to know!


    1. Oh, and I forgot to write in with a couple of books I’ve enjoyed recently: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other [AMAZING; highly recommend!] and for something a bit fluffier, Elin Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69 and the follow-up novella, Summer of ’79. It was a treat to follow this family through a tumultuous summer! Would make a great beach read.


      1. Hi! I also read some Hilderbrand a few weeks back and it was just what the doctor ordered. So easy to read, so juicy. I love the setting of course 🙂


    2. Hi MK! Cannot WAIT to hear your assessment of No One Is Talking About This. Polarizing book!

      I have found inexpensive but attractive wrapping paper at Target and Flying Tiger (I think they have some stores in Boston?)!


    3. Ohh, GREAT tip on Flying Tiger! I have visited their Flatiron store before (PERFECT for kid stuff!) but haven’t made it to the one in Boston .. will definitely check it out!

      Also, happy to give some thoughts on the Lockwood as soon as I finish it! 🙂


  2. Jen! So happy you read and enjoyed Commonwealth! I will forever be nudging people toward Patchett (ha!) as I completely agree with you that she is one of the greatest writers of our time and I loved re-experiencing this book through your review. Although I think the question “how much of this book is biographical?” can be a rather reductive/blase question to ask a novelist, I found it interesting to learn that there are definite parallels in Commonwealth and in Patchett’s life, which I gleaned through reading essays in her collection “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” From the fact that her father was an LAPD police officer to her having one biological sister but several step-siblings, and her parents divorcing, etc. I prefer her fiction to nonfiction (granted, I LOVE her fiction, obviously), but also recommend this essay collection for when you’re in the mood for essays. It also includes a moving essay on nuns (she attended Catholic school) which you might appreciate given your Catholicism. 🙂

    1. Thank you SO much, Joyce, for the nudge. It was just the most delicious and unexpected treat to glide through that book. As a fellow Patchett fan, do you know what I mean by “glide”? Her prose flows with such elegance and quiet — the pace of the prose is gracious, kind. These books have such a warmth to them. I could go on and on…

      Thanks for the suggestion on essays! It’s been a minute (at least several months) since I’ve read any non-fiction so maybe it’s about time.


    2. You are very welcome! 🙂 And yes! You can totally “glide” through a Patchett novel. They are, generally, not jarring—and still, things happen, but the action unfolds in this easy, organic way. It never feels like you’re “seeing the outline” of the novel or “seeing what the writer is trying to do here”, as I sometimes can feel with other writers, even other very talented writers. Re: Commonwealth specifically, I was so impressed with how she managed time. Time passed, and she skipped “key events” that other authors may have felt obligated to include. But she managed it all with such mastery!

      You are also making me realize one aspect that makes Patchett distinct from Elena Ferrante or Elizabeth Strout (two of my other favorite living authors): she has, as you say, a warmth, a hopefulness in her novels; I cannot consistently say that for Ferrante or Strout. Now, I tend to be a fan of what some would call depressing or melancholy literature (ha!) but, still, I do love basking in the warmth of a Patchett book. I could also go on and on… 🙂

      1. YES! This is the perfect observation on the mechanics of achieving the “glide” effect: “It never feels like you’re “seeing the outline” of the novel or “seeing what the writer is trying to do here”, as I sometimes can feel with other writers, even other very talented writers. Re: Commonwealth specifically, I was so impressed with how she managed time. Time passed, and she skipped “key events” that other authors may have felt obligated to include. But she managed it all with such mastery!”

        SO true. Also in how she presents character: she has a way of presenting characters in details that are evocative but never feel arithmetic, i.e., the details are like tiles in a mosaic that overall afford the impression of a character but are not necessarily direct inputs into how the novel will unfold. It is truly a beautiful, elegant way of writing.


    3. +1, Joyce! The last essay about Sister Nena made me nostalgic for the compassionate, funny, wonderfully weird nuns of my Catholic childhood. I adored this essay collection!
      I might also suggest another great Ann(e) – I pulled Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from my bookshelf last month, a remnant high school assigned read, and thought Anne Tyler did a brilliant job crafting another long arc family story.

      1. Thank you for the upvote and suggestion, Robyn! I added the book of essays to my reading list and will look into this Tyler book, too!

        (And welcome to the comments section – so glad to have you here!)


  3. “How other people live is pretty much all I think about. Curiosity is the rock upon which fiction is built. But for all the times people have wanted to tell me their story because they think it would make a wonderful novel, it pretty much never works out. People are not characters, no matter how often we tell them they are; conversations are not dialogue; and the actions of our days don’t add up to a plot. In life, time runs together in its sameness, but in fiction time is condensed—one action springboards into another, greater action. Cause and effect are so much clearer in novels than they are in life. You might not see how everything threads together as you read along, but when you look back from the end of the story, the map becomes clear.” from an intense, interesting and long article written by Patchett.

  4. I read Commonwealth several years ago, and while I loved the cover (oranges!!) I remember feeling a little underwhelmed by the book itself. Maybe it skewed a bit depressing for me, or at least that’s the lens through which I read it. I think the way you feel about this book is how I felt about Winter Solstice when I reread it recently – have you read it? Anyway, it just goes to show that a book can be a “good” book and still not be the right book for everyone.

    1. So true, Stephanie! I’ve felt that way about several books, too: great book, just not right for me at a particular time in my life. I would agree that there are parts that skew depressing in this book, though I found the tenderness and love of some of the central characters restorative.

      I haven’t read Winter Solstice! Worth adding to my tsundoku pile, it seems?


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