Commonwealth. By Ann Patchett. Harper. 322 pages. $27.99.
New York Times Best Selling author Ann Patchett said “Commonwealth” is the book she should have written when she was 25. In an interview with NPR, she said that, as a young writer, “I wanted to prove that I had this great imagination.”
To do that, Patchett wrote books such as “Bel Canto” about a hostage crisis set in South America, for which she won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and “State of Wonder” which provided readers a chance to travel deep into the Amazon rainforest to study the extended fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe.
Having proved that her imagination is vast and wide, Patchett has written a story closer to home in “Commonwealth,” which follows two families in the suburbs over the course of 50 years.
In 2011, Patchett opened “Parnassus,” an indie bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., and joined the ranks of fellow author-retailers Jeff Kinney, Louise Erdrich and Judy Blume. An unexpected result of being a bookseller is that she’s become a spokeswoman for indie bookstores and the value they provide to communities. She’s also become aware of stories that aren’t being told, and in “Commonwealth,” Patchett set out to explore the far reaching effects of divorce and the “reconfiguration of families.”
The reconfiguration of this family begins with a christening party that “took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Patchett dives deep into her scenes, and the christening at the Keating’s unfolds on the shoulders of various characters. We eavesdrop as guests congregate in the kitchen and backyard. We follow Fix Keating as he leaves his party to fetch more ice while his wife, Beverly, slices oranges for screwdrivers on the kitchen.
Father Joe sits in the backyard with his third drink, trying to write a sermon in his head. We follow Albert “Bert” Cousins down the hallway and into the bedroom where he discovers Beverly Keating holding baby Franny, and we watch as he steals a kiss, realizing, “This was the start of his life.”
This fateful kiss results in the divorces of Fix and Beverly Keating and Bert and Teresa Cousins. Bert and Beverly get married and move with Beverly’s two daughters to Virginia, while Teresa stays in Los Angeles as a single mother to her four children. Fix remarries and sees his daughters for two-week vacations. The Cousins kids fly to Virginia every summer to spend time with their father, his new wife and their step-siblings.
One summer Teresa decides to send her four kids off to Virginia without luggage. “Beverly Cousins wanted her family? Have at it.” This simple, passive-aggressive decision perfectly illustrates the bittersweet reality of divorce. Kids who have clothes in two different homes, who fly from one state to another, and who are suddenly step-siblings with strangers.
The story is at its best when the six kids are together. Thrown together in the hot summer in Virginia, “they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of ‘Oliver Twist.’ ”
The oldest, Cal, is allergic to bees and has to carry Benadryl with him at all times. They feed Albie, the youngest and most hyperactive sibling, Cal’s Benadryl like candy to keep him quiet so they can be free to roam the woods.
On a brief vacation to the Pinecone Motel, the six children wake up early and find a note from Bert and Beverly that says “We are sleeping late. Do not knock.” The six siblings decide to hike to a nearby lake and the scene perfectly depicts the dangerous and thrilling adventures of childhood. Patchett skillfully leads us close to the edge and back again, reminding us of the value of independence.
The book spans 50 years and we follow the Keating/Cousins clan from christening parties to retirement. Some characters are more richly drawn than others. Teresa, the single, overworked mom, is a more empathetic character than the thinly drawn Beverly whose defining characteristic is her beauty. She drifts from one husband to the next, never finding her own voice.
Franny Keating drops out of law school and ends up waiting tables at a bar to pay off her student loans. One fateful night a famous, older male author (think Saul Bellow, Philip Roth or John Updike) comes into the bar and falls for Franny. He has been struck by writer’s block and Franny becomes his muse. He turns stories of her childhood into his next blockbuster novel much to her family’s dismay.
Patchett seems to be asking us to consider the ownership of stories. Who do the stories belong to? And what happens to them when someone dies? Franny and her sister, Caroline, visit their dying father and she realizes that “All the stories go with you. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for.”
Anyone from a “blended family” knows that keeping track of various family members is confusing, especially at holidays, and at times I wished for some sort of family tree to reference. Toward the end of the book, even Patchett throws up her hands at the messiness of blended families.
At a Christmas party Franny says, “She couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”
Patchett wrote “Commonwealth” because she didn’t see the story of a large, blended family being told. I hope that this book will open the door for others to write about the evolving shape of American families and the way they connect, divide and reconnect over a lifetime. “This was the pleasure of a long life: the way some things worked themselves out.”