Commonwealth: A Review for Writers as well as Readers
My apology to non-writers. This review of Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth, focuses primarily on the writing, but in doing so perhaps readers will come to understand some basic writing techniques and how they influence story.
Unlike many contemporary novels, Commonwealth is written from an omniscient viewpoint. That means from the very first sentence there’s an always present story narrator telling us what people are doing and thinking. “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with a bottle of gin.” That’s the narrator talking, not one of the characters.
Omniscient is contrasted to first person where we only see and hear things from the main character’s viewpoint or third person where we can be in different people’s minds at different times during the course of the novel.
One advantage of omniscient viewpoint is the story doesn’t have to be told in chronological order. Patchett makes good use of the freedom to jump around in time after starting with the “inciting incident”—the decision by a man to attend the christening of the daughter of a man he knows only through work. Bert not only alters the tone of the party by bringing a bottle of gin as his christening present, but ends up kissing the girl’s mother, which leads to the breakup of two families, launching us into the story which focuses primarily on the two families’ six children.
There’s a second inciting incident––the death of one of the children, the details of which are not fully revealed until the end of the novel. That allows Patchett to create an air of mystery, a source of tension and of character evolution.
Another advantage of omniscient viewpoint is it enables Patchett to reveal what each primary character in a scene is thinking or feeling, which is a no-no when writing from first or third person where readers expect the authors to keep us in one viewpoint throughout each scene.
Patchett handles this feature with great skill. Her omniscient narrator treads lightly and we never feel she is stepping outside the story.
As to the story itself, it’s no wonder that Patchett is highly regarded. She reminds me of Richard Russo in that despite the fact that some of her characters behave badly she is never judgmental. Commonwealth takes the long view of people’s lives, which means there’s a balancing out affect. Albie, who is a wreck as a child, finds himself and becomes an admirable son and father; Caroline and Franny, who fought like sisters often do, become friends; and Jeanette and Holly both achieve places in the world observers of them as children would not have predicted.
Patchett’s story benefits from her eye for detail and ability to describe the unique. Whether describing a meditation commune in Switzerland, the excesses of the rich and famous, or the life of a bicycle delivery boy, her descriptions are spot on.
My one and only quarrel is with the title, the meaning of which in relation to the story escapes me. Perhaps her publisher didn’t like Patchett’s title and thought this one would sell more books. Don’t let the title deter you from getting a copy. Whether a writer or a reader, you’ll find it a comfortable way to spend 8 or 10 hours.