On September 13, Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, will hit shelves. The book’s been popping up on “Most Anticipated” lists all summer, from Publisher’s Weekly to The Washington Post, included alongside highly praised forthcoming titles from such authors as Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Yaa Gyasi, Jonathan Safran Froer, and Jacqueline Woodson. Apart from being a novelist, Patchett is the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, and from what I’ve read in interviews, she doesn’t slow down for long. She’ll be touring with Commonwealth this fall, and if you don’t get a chance to catch her while she’s on the road, never fear – I’m happy to announce that she’ll be a featured author at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest on April 22, 2017. I’ll give you a minute to commit that date to memory.
I started reading Commonwealth a few weeks ago, thanks to the generosity of a friend with access to an early copy, and, like most times when I crack the spine on a new title, I ended up opening up another book I’d recently bought and deciding to read it too. When people mention they tend to read one book at a time, I do a mental tally of the titles that lay in wait for me at home, on my desk and coffee table or at the bottom of my backpack or the sill above my bed. I keep a book in my car, a book in my purse, and, until I replaced it with a jump rope, I’d had one stashed in my gym bag. The jump rope has been used approximately once.
I attribute this zealous nature to college, but also to falling into the habit of binge-watching shows thanks to online streaming. I do not discourage this habit. More often than not, it’s the only way I can get through a series. It’s like there is this immediacy button that gets locked into place. If it’s compelling enough, I’ll watch the whole thing as quickly as possible, despite having other things in my queue. I’ve found that, thanks to headphones and a little creativity, I can watch while washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, putting on make-up, etc. (If not, I’d feel lazy for sitting in front of a screen all day. But you kind of have to be lazy while reading…I mean…have you read on a treadmill? Difficult.)
This habit has found its way into my reading life. I have a stack of books on my shelves, sure, but I also like to keep up with what’s being written, so I buy books. If I’ve gotten a book in the mail, I’ll read the first few pages while standing at my desk, within a few feet of the door to my apartment. Those first few pages tell me where to put it in my “am reading” stack, which is currently about 12 books high (or was last time I counted). You know how it is, you have to get through that season of Stranger Things because everyone’s talking about it, so you pause on Boardwalk Empire. Rarely does that immediacy exist for a book unless you’re tied to the publishing or bookselling world or are a book reviewer or the like. The books I binge are rarely intentional, and there’s hardly anyone to speak to about them in my circle of friends, but they keep nose-to-book. I’ll often bail on plans and live on my couch for a weekend to finish reading.
When Commonwealth was passed across the table to me at a meeting a few weeks ago, I wanted to go home immediately and read it, but I was also a bit worried to start reading this far into Ann’s body of work. I mean, she’s written 7 novels, 2 memoirs, done a stint at Seventeen magazine, and been awarded accolade after accolade, including the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner awards for her novel Bel Canto (2001). Didn’t I want to start at season 1, so to speak? See what she’d started with? Meander through old works to compare them to her current style? Truth be told, I didn’t have the time. Also, if I always went by that line of thought, I’d never finish a book! I needed to get through Commonwealth so I could write this very post and tell you how much you’ll be missing out on – truly – if you miss this book. I also just really liked the book, so there’s that. Don’t worry – no spoilers here. It’s not even fair to post a review without the book hitting shelves, right? So I suppose I will give you a preview.
Needless to say, Commonwealth jumped to the top of my “am reading” stack. In a nutshell, the book’s about family. It’s about how one event can shape the lives of two families, in fact. It leaps across the years and back again to show a family growing all at once – exploring the fluidity of memory and the scope of storytelling and the power of empathy. Patchett throws readers into a distinct family landscape (actually, two families that merge), building a world that’s easy to get caught up in – to where you’ll find yourself saying “one more page” and reading until you wake up the next morning with the book on your chest and a lamp or two still on.
Commonwealth covers all the ground of familial relationships, and it’s a big family, so there’s a great deal of ground to cover. Even though the plot twists back and forth through time and perspective, each character gets pages by themselves and with each other, but it’s easy to keep up. It’s the type of book you’ll want to stake out a weekend for, so prepare yourself now.
Need something to read while you wait for Commonwealth? Here’s a list Ann and her team at Parnassus came up with of the best 75 books of the past 75 years. Be sure to come hear Ann speak and get a few books signed at SOKY Book Fest this April 21-22 at the Knicely Conference Center in Bowling Green. More featured author announcements coming your way next month!
– SOKY Book Fest Coordinator