Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – Book


Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good.

The term literally meant “common well-being”.

There is, however, another form of commonwealth. The ever-helpful offers this alternate definition: a “self-governing, autonomous political unit…

There are at least two commonwealths in the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. In one instance the term most likely refers to the Commonwealth of Virginia (technically designated as such) and in the other instance it could describe the relationship that develops among the children in the two blended families we meet in this novel. If you have watched You’ve Got Mail as many times as I have, then you remember the scene in Kathleen Kelly/Meg Ryan’s little bookshop where Joe Fox/Tom Hanks is trying to hide his identity. When one of the children with him reveals that she is the aunt of the much older Joe Fox and the other young child reveals that he is Fox’s brother, Tom Hanks says, “We are an American family.” Well here in Commonwealth we find another such non-nuclear American family.

The beautiful Beverly is married to a man named Fix Keating, who is a policeman. When his second child is born an uninvited DA, Albert Cousins, crashes the party and that ends up being the catalyst that brings about the destruction of two marriages. The problem is that Beverly is a parent who really is not suited to parenting and her second husband, the wife stealer DA, Bert, is almost a completely absent father. These two parents reside in Virginia. Fix and the wife of Bert Cousins, Teresa reside in California. There are six children. Carolyn and Franny are the children of Beverly and Fix. Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie are the children of Bert and Teresa. After Beverly and Bert divorce their spouses and marry each other, Fix and Teresa both remarry but not to each other. So each child ends up with 3 sets of part time parents.

Two of the children, Carolyn and Franny live in Virginia and only visit California; the other four spend the school year in California and the summers in Virginia. It is difficult to keep these families straight when the children are young. Although each child has his or her own personality, I found it difficult to remember which child belonged to which parent.

The children have complicated emotional responses to their situation and to their natural and by-marriage siblings. But as they age they find that they become a sort of commonwealth of five and we learn who is who, so it is not necessary for readers to worry about those early confusions. There is, of course, a great tragedy that brings the children together in guilt. They are keeping a secret about what happened to the sixth child, which does not really get told until the parents are dying. In classic novels this would have been the key to deep psychological wounds in the children, but the tone of this novel is perhaps too superficial, or too modern, to go “there” in any meaningful way.

Ann Patchett is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story but this story is just giving us details of a tale that is so common in modern life as to almost be cliché. I liked the children and some of the parents but the story is more a slice of life than any kind of social commentary. Do I think fiction has to be culturally relevant? Perhaps not, but novels that stand the test of time usually have a je ne sais quoi factor that raises them out of the ordinary. I enjoyed reading Commonwealth, but I am not sure that it will turn out to be a keeper.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Book

We live in a time when civility and charm seem difficult to find and tempers are on a short fuse. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem like negotiating a mine field of human hostility. People disconnect from fellow shoppers and single-mindedly rush to get items crossed off their errand list. All they long for is to get home to their personal sanctuary. In times like these, Amor Towles is just the antidote required to inspire introspection and self-evaluation. Perhaps he will even help us change the way we relate to the world. A Gentleman in Moscow, although just a fiction story, makes a point that could transform us all.

Our gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is 33 years old when we first meet him in 1922. He is a man caught between two ages in Russian history so disparate as to induce whiplash. He is an aristocrat who returns, to his peril, to Russia from Paris in 1918, which if you know your history, is just after the Russian Revolution when Russian society gets turned over like a compost pile. What was on the bottom is now on the top and what was on the top is now, for the most part, either dead or in Siberia.

But Count Rostov is such a benign style of aristocrat that he manages to wend his way through the anger and revolutionary righteousness of the new Communist state, not completely unscathed, but as a permanent resident of a luxurious Russian hotel right near the center of Moscow. Rostov has never held a job, has never been a worker, but he is trained by his former lifestyle to have skills that are quite useful to have. He is a great judge of human interaction and he knows how to arrange people at a state dinner or in a well-run restaurant so that any strife is defused and affairs run smoothly. Besides this talent he is charming and amenable and flexible in the face of change. His good nature is adaptable but he is not a chameleon; he is always himself.

Count Rostov’s punishment for coming back to Russia at exactly the wrong time is that he is imprisoned in the lovely Metropole Hotel where he has been living for four years. When asked by the tribunal why he came back he says he missed the climate and they all shake their heads in understanding. He has to give up a large suite of rooms with excellent views that he has been occupying and move into servant’s quarters in the attic. If you think that once sentence has been passed this tale will turn gloomy and scary then you have not yet met our Alexander. He’s in a hotel. Things happen. You may find that you have to “suspend your disbelief” a bit but it will be well worth it.

Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility writes like times that are past and gone, like one who is on earth to remind us of slower times when people were kinder and more (heaven forbid) socially correct. It was a balm to my spirit to read A Gentleman in Moscow at this particularly pugilistic moment in the history of our nation.