Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is most well known for her novel Bel Canto, and well regarded for her others, including Run and State of Wonder.
Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth begins with a party to celebrate the christening of a baby, Frances, the youngest child of Fix and Beverly Keating. Fix is a seasoned police officer, and is thrilled to be hosting this event for his colleagues and neighbours. Beverly is a known beauty, and seemingly happy all American girl, wife and mother. An uninvited guest, Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin.
There is an instant, gin fueled, attraction between Bert and Beverly and two families become separated and joined at the same time. The children, Beverly’s daughters Caroline and Franny, and Bert’s sons Cal and Albie, and daughters Holly and Jeanette will grow up together and apart, as they spend time with each of the parents, and their future spouses. The families are also separated geographically, between Virginia and California, with the children flying back and forth across the country at the will of the various parents.
The novel is centered mostly on Franny because it is she who reveals the story of her family and a tragedy that involved both families to her lover, a famous author in need of a good story.
Before I read Commonwealth I chanced upon a PBS interview with Ann Patchett and she talked about the fact that this is the most autobiographical novel she has written. She very carefully consulted her family members and had them read the manuscript before submitting it for publication. Though the story is theirs, it is also hers and she wanted to be able to tell it.
The novel moves between voices and time periods, as the children become adults themselves, and the parents have second and sometimes third marriages.
We all know everyone in a family has their own, and often different, memories of events and each person is more or less affected by those events. Children can be kind and loving but they can also be cruel, and both resilient and fragile. They can survive potentially dangerous situations, and they can be terribly damaged by cruelty and tragedy. Time does heal, as trite as that sounds in the immediate days and years at the time a tragedy occurs. But the tragedy, and its effect on each person, is always there.
Commonwealth was occasionally confusing with so many children, stepchildren, parents, and current and former husbands and wives. Even the children in the novel sometimes wonder at the myriad of relations who may or may not be part of their family at any given time. You may find yourself thinking uncomfortably about the dislocation of the children of divorce.
As the novel ends Franny, like most of us, ponders the “what ifs”. What if Bert had not crashed her christening party, hadn’t met her mother, hadn’t married her? Then what? Well we will never know. And, what does happen in Commonwealth makes for a terrific novel about a family doing what all families must do, one day at a time. Some times it is wonderful and sometimes it is not.