I thought Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder showed that she had reached her peak as a writer, so perhaps it’s inevitable that I would see her new novel Commonwealth as the start of a slow descent from that peak.
Partly it’s just the subject matter. How can a story that originates in suburban Virginia compete with a story in which we get taken into the jungle? The “jungle” in suburban Virginia is metaphorical, sure, but it’s less mysterious and wonderful.
The title Commonwealth is all kinds of symbolic as it’s about six children from two blended families, the trouble they got up to one summer, and how that summer affected the rest of their lives.
The children are not closely supervised during their summers together, and the novel takes a judgmental tone towards that because the children do. They resent being thrown together and they believe their parents should wake up from their sexual daze and see how their actions have affected their offspring. The parents don’t, however, and the offspring have entire days to go off on their own. From their very first outing, they give Benadryl to the youngest so he won’t slow them down and then:
“the five of them swam out farther than they would have been allowed to had the parents been with them. Franny and Jeanette went to look for caves and were taught to fish by two men they met standing off by themselves in a grove of trees on the shore. Cal stole a package of Ho-Ho’s from the bait shop and had no need to use the gun in the paper bag because no one saw him do it. Caroline and Holly climbed to the top of a high rock and leapt into the lake again and again and again.”
There are lots of little close-ups of people that readers will recognize. I recognized some of the ones of an old man getting treatments at a hospital and talking to his daughter—not because of conversations with my father, but with my mother. He tells a story about a man he worked with and says, anticipating her reaction, “can you imagine the lawsuits people would file if someone did that now?” He feels irritated by the daughter’s appearance, thinking that she looked like her mother “but without Beverly’s sense of knowing what to do with her looks….He knew people here, sometimes his doctor came by during treatment. She could have made an effort.”
There are little details that you may recognize too, like this one:
“Just then the lights came down two settings. Heinrich always shut down the night too abruptly, turning the lights so low so fast that it felt like a straight fall into darkness. Every time it happened she had a split second of wondering if something small and important had ruptured inside her head.”
Living in wet and green Ohio at this time of year, I appreciated the description of Virginia as a place where “the world had been rendered deep and lush and essentially fireproof. In Virginia people stored wood in the garage in the hopes that one day it would be dry enough to burn.”
There’s a metafictional turn to the novel when the youngest child discovers that the fictional novel Commonwealth, written by Leo Posen (inside the actual novel Commonwealth, written by Ann Patchett) tells the story of the six children and the summer when they’d given all the Benadryl to him and there was none left when it was needed.
It’s an inventive tale about shifting loyalties and the ownership of the stories we tell. I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it’s as captivating and wonderful as the last one she wrote. Commonwealth goes on sale tomorrow, and I thank HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy.