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Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.
Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.
All of this will make Commonwealth sound like a domestic novel, and it is – one of the finest in recent memory, which is reason enough to admire it. But the word “commonwealth” also flies like a flag over this book, suggesting a broader field of vision. The story primarily shifts between California, the state that most symbolises the American dream, and Virginia, one of America’s four designated “commonwealth” states. America’s various founding narratives often invoke the idea of commonwealth; in Virginia, the word is used to suggest the state’s autonomous and original national role, its prehistory as the earliest colony. Virginia was the home of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and thus also the birthplace of the declaration of independence; it is as symbolic as Massachusetts (by no coincidence another commonwealth). But America itself is also a commonwealth: a republic in which everyone has a collective interest, and an equal voice. So “commonwealth” is a loaded, even paradoxical term in the United States, one that might variously denote sharing prosperity, mutual greed or serving the greater good; unity with the body politic or autonomy from it. Independence or collectivity: the great question America never answers.
Although it is uneasily united, often divisive and rancorous, the newly formed Keating-Cousins family never reduces to mere national allegory, however. Part of Patchett’s design is to curve every type, bend every cliche, adulterate every formula. (One of her slyest turns is to plant a gun in the novel in bold defiance of Chekhov’s famous axiom, insinuating that a “commonwealth” might appear to hinge on guns and actually be about something else entirely.) The youngest of the six children, Albie Cousins, appears early on to be emerging as a familiar version of a fictional troubled teen, who nearly burned down the high school as a teenager, and whose adult life is shrouded in the kind of dubious mystery that seems always to veil adults in novels who are estranged from their families. For much of the story the other characters don’t know what’s happened to him, but they’re sure it isn’t good. Patchett tempts the reader into concluding that Albie was born bad, and this will be the tale of a child sociopath, a novel asking whether evil is intractable.
But she is up to something far more subtle, startling and painful than that. There is nothing inevitable or fated here, unless it is that actions have consequences, most of which are unintended. A person might seem “unbearable”, but then the narrating mind suggests, “maybe that’s the real problem”, that a person who seems unbearable may rather be “emblematic of what can never be overcome”. When the whole tragic power of her story hits the reader, about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is physically breathtaking. Patchett sucker-punches you, but leaves you feeling you had it coming – whether for underestimating her, or her characters, or humanity, is hard to say.
In particular, Commonwealth is one of the most discerning novels about siblings I can recall. One pair of stepsiblings share an equivocal bond: “In that sense the two of them had been a team, albeit a team neither one of them wanted to be on.” Sisters Franny and Caroline fought all the way through childhood, with real bitterness. In a more conventional story, that rancour would follow them, and they would end distant, estranged adults. In Commonwealth, they grow out of it, finding a deep bond in their shared past, a common understanding of their complicated family that no one else grasps. When their father’s second wife criticises a choice they made, Caroline reassures her sister that even if it makes no sense to other people, she knows they did the right thing. A grateful Franny asks: “What do the only children do?” to which Caroline responds: “We’ll never have to know.”
The novel is alive with provocative insights that sum up entire relationships: “His daughter from his first marriage always needed money because she needed so much more than money but money was the easiest way for her to express those needs.” That sentence perfectly sums up her technique: it begins with a disagreeable type and ends with wise and generous sympathy for a human being. There are no lazy shortcuts. The neighbourhood in Los Angeles where the story begins, for example, has not, as one might have predicted, taken a downturn in recent years: “In truth, the story didn’t turn out to be such a bad one,” the narrator observes of the neighbourhood; by implication, the same applies to Patchett’s entire tale. No one in it is worthless.
The commonwealth of this novel is family, it is nation, it is history shared and history lost. Late in the novel, Franny and Caroline travel with their father to see Teresa Cousins, Bert’s first wife. Former cop Fix Keating, expert in the streets of LA, directs them through a back route to their old neighbourhood, Torrance. “All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for. All the ways to get to Torrance.” All the ways to get to Torrance are our commonwealth: all the ways to write a novel, to become a family, to remember the past. All the ways to inhabit America, to be a nation. All the ways to come together. And one of the ways we come together is through sharing our treasures – including jewels like Commonwealth.
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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett review – breathtaking, perceptive and poignant | Fiction