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Ann Patchett admits her bestselling 'Commonwealth' hits close to home

“Commonwealth,” published by Harper, is the seventh novel by Ann Patchett, who also wrote “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder,” along with three books of non-fiction. Patchett is seen in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
October 17, 2016 - 5:01 AM

TORONTO - Ann Patchett admits her work has always been somewhat informed by her personal life and her bestselling novel "Commonwealth" is no different.

A bottle of gin, a stolen kiss and a tragic death are catalysts that drive the plot of Patchett's seventh novel, which hit bookshelves in September.

L.A. district attorney Bert Cousins shows up uninvited at a christening party for Franny Keating, bearing the inappropriate gift of a large bottle of gin. Before the gathering is over, Bert kisses Franny's beautiful mother Beverly, precipitating an affair that results in the breakup of their marriages.

The book follows the Cousins and Keating families over five decades as they deal with the fallout of these events and learn to move on.

Patchett acknowledges there are some autobiographical elements in "Commonwealth" (HarperCollins Canada).

"Anybody who spent five minutes researching my life could figure out that there were similarities between my circumstances and the people in this book," she says. "All I can say is, I think all of my books are about my family. It's just I dressed the other ones up a lot more."

The 52-year-old writer, who won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for "Bel Canto," says she's always been careful not to write anything that would make her loved ones uncomfortable.

But in not writing about the lives of her family she was also not writing about her own life. In order not to tread on anyone's toes, she talked to family members before starting the novel and during writing. And she sent everyone a copy of the finished manuscript.

"Everybody read it and everybody was fine. It's been interesting because this has really been the one book where I haven't cared at all about reviews or how the public views the book because I cared so much about what my family thought about the book and I was really nervous when they were reading the book."

In the novel, the adult Franny has an affair with an acclaimed novelist, Leo Posen, and shares stories with him about her family's past. He pens a novel about their childhood, also called "Commonwealth," exposing details that had been covered up.

Franny does not reveal to her family what Leo is up to, but when Albie, the youngest child, happens to read Leo's novel he is devastated.

"I'm always really interested when the reader knows something the character doesn't know and a character finding something out about himself or herself through a third party," says Patchett, who co-owns the independent Parnassus Books in her hometown of Nashville.

"I always think about Jane Fonda. When Jane Fonda was in boarding school she read in a fan magazine that her mother had committed suicide and she never knew.... Those are the kind of things that sort of stick in your memory or your consciousness and you think what would it be like to find out something so essential about yourself and your own life in a public forum."

As a bookstore owner, Patchett is constantly reading. She was preparing to dive into Canadian Emma Donoghue's new book "The Wonder," which has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

"Emma is a contemporary. I have a real sense of sisterhood with her and I feel like we are supportive of one another. I admire her work — really, really love her books. I will always read her book the second I get my hands on it.

"And then I think about Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Carol Shields. Those are the three most iconic women out there — Carol not being with us — but just in terms of role models and what anyone would aspire to be and three people that you would never say, 'Oh, well, you know they're writing really great women's literature.' They are the top. They are the top of the game.

"They're not like the best Canadian authors or the best female authors. They are the best authors. Period. So, go Canada. You guys are doing a great job."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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