I bought Ann Patchett's 'Commonwealth' for my sister for Christmas, with the unashamed intention of pinching it back at some point. Ann admits apparently to the autobiographical nature of this book, but within the story it is the unwitting Franny who tells her family history to a writer who's subsequent, very successful, novel lays bare all their uncomfortable truths. It is very much a story about the children, though it is the actions and decisions of the grown ups that decides their fate.
I had mixed feeling about the book, but reading it over the course of a day or so at Claire's I was equally sucked right into the story and the relationships between the six young people. On the surface they seem to adapt to their new family arrangements but tensions emerge in subtle ways over time. The death of one of the children becomes an unspoken tragedy that overshadows their future, with blame and responsibility being shifted and shouldered by parents and siblings alike. I like her writing because it is always so perceptive of human relationships and the quiet, ordinary moments of life; nothing dramatic has to happen to make the story interesting. Here is an after-work scene, Albie has been living on the sofa of his sister Jeanette and her husband Fodé for some time:
"Jeanette washed the salad greens. Fodé wrapped the sliced bread in tinfoil and put it in the oven. They worked around one another in the tiny space, each one stepping out of the other's way.
'Tell me about your day instead,' he said to her. 'Let's think of something better.'
'You want to think about MRI demonstrations in the hospital basements?'
Fodé stopped for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. 'No, no.' He turned then to his brother-in-law, so pleased to have another opportunity. 'What I meant to say is - Albie, please, tell us about your day.'
Albie shifted the weight of his nephew in his arms. He spoke to the baby. 'I was stopped by security guards in four buildings today. I showed my ID, was told I could go up, and then I was stopped by a second guard at the elevator who told me I couldn't go up.'
Fodé nodded with appreciation. 'This is most impressive for a white man.'
'And I was almost hit by the M16 bus.'
'Stop it,' Jeanette said, putting a bowl of salad in the middle of the table. 'No more about your day either.'
'That leaves us with Dayo,' Albie said.
Fodé took the baby from his arms. 'Dayo. There is no one I would rather hear from. My son, tell us, was it a beautiful day to be alive?'
'Uncle,' Dayo said, and held out his arms to go back.
Albie, who had lived close to the edge for so long, and at times had strayed past the edge, looked out the window to see the lights shining down from those countless Brooklyn apartments. He wondered if this was what people were doing - were they making dinners with their family, holding babies, recounting days? Was this was what life was like for them?" (p.173)
Other Ann Pratchett books I have loved: State of Wonder, Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty.