Did You Ever Have a Family Commonwealth
By Bill Clegg by Ann Patchett
Sometimes you read similar books close together and can't help but compare them. It happened to me a couple years ago when I read TheLikeness and The Secret History. I enjoyed them both, but the plots were so similar. I couldn’t help but have a clear favorite.
That happened again last month when I read the novels Did You Ever Have a Family and Commonwealth back-to-back without realizing how similar they are. Both books revolve around a tragedy. In one book it happens in the present and in the other it happened in the past. Both books tell the story from the point of view of many different people who are connected to the story. Both deal with grief, loss, broken marriages, and children whose relationships with their parents are beyond complicated.
They were both excellent novels, but with different strengths. I read Did You Ever Have a Family first, so I think it had a clear advantage. I wasn’t comparing it to anything else while reading it. Once I started Commonwealth I kept thinking back to the plot of the first book. I think Commonwealth was the more beautifully written of the two. I love Patchett’s work. She creates such incredible characters with depth and complex feelings.
Clegg’s novel is centered on the events that happen the night before a wedding. The bride and groom and other family members are killed when a gas explosion destroys their house. The mother-of-the-bride is the only one to survive. We are narrowed in to see the repercussions of one event. We flash back to the past for some context, but the main focus is the ripple effect of the explosion.
In Commonwealth the tragedy isn't revealed until you’re immersed in the novel. It’s less about one big event and more about relationships. An affair kicks off the novel and the main focus is the interactions between two sets of siblings after their parents marry. We get to know the characters through decades of their lives, winding through marriages and deaths, cross-country moves and crappy jobs.
Both are excellent character studies full of regret abandon dreams, sickness, guilt, and all the messiness of life. I love that two very different authors can craft completely unique books that feel similar because of the themes.
BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed both novels, but they are unintentionally tied together in my mind.