Book Review of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Reviewed by Ellie Scott
September 12, 2016
Ann Patchett's newest novel Commonwealth is due to hit shelves on September 13th . The acclaimed author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder will delight audiences as she has done many times over, only this time, rather than plunging the reader into a far-flung scenario of a birthday-party-turned-hostage-crisis, or navigating us through the remote Amazonian jungle in search of fertility drugs and missing persons, Commonwealth explores the far more lifelike reality of blended families, and the pain and grace that comes from relative strangers suddenly thrown together and forced to become kin. This elegantly rendered book will resonate with many people in ways that Patchett’s previous novels (amazing as they all have been…is there anything this woman can’t write?) may not have.
Commonwealth opens at the home of Los Angeles cop Fix Keating, during a Christening party for his daughter Franny that “took a turn when Albert Cousens showed up with gin.” Cousens not only crashes the party with that bottle of gin, but irrevocably sets in motion the dissolution of both men’s families. Before very long, Bert Cousens has left his wife Teresa for Fix Keating’s irresistible wife Beverly, and soon Bert and Beverly have combined their sulky band of miscreant children (six of them in total) and moved across the country to spend summers together in the Virginia Commonwealth. The book explores how one unexpected chance encounter reverberates (with ever increasing amplitude) through the lives of four parents and six children over the following five decades.
Drawing from the experience of her own blended family background, Patchett exquisitely braids each character’s storyline into the others’ and renders with honesty the complicated picture of a family grafted together, pointing to the inevitable fusing and scarring that result from the betrayals and heartbreak, but also to the alliances forged out of necessity and the bond that arises from the childrens’ shared disappointment in their parents.
Largely unsupervised during those summers in the Commonwealth, the children routinely drug Albie, the littlest (and most annoying) child, with Benadryl in order to ditch him for a while, leaving him asleep in the sun to bake for hours. And though Patchett explores each child’s story line, following each one through adolescence, emerging adulthood, and into middle age, she focuses on Franny (the second-youngest). Adrift as a cocktail waitress, Franny seeks refuge in the arms of novelist Leon Posen, her literary hero, when he sits down at her bar one night. She becomes his muse (a girl’s dream come true). Patchett writes, “He had found her life meaningful when she could make no sense of it at all.” But being a muse comes with a price. Leon Posen works the story of her childhood into a novel called, of all things— Commonwealth. When the book is converted into a movie, a fresh tidal wave of pain and recognition crashes over each family member.
Though it is unlikely that most of Patchett’s audience will identify with having their lives converted into a best-selling novel, readers will surely recognize their own families in the Keating-Cousens hodgepodge. They will wonder about the meaning and ownership of story, of family history, and will meditate from adulthood on what might have become of their own families in the absence of certain catastrophic events. In this way, Commonwealth could be the setting to any one of our childhood memories. This family could be any of our families. This story could belong to any one of us. Or maybe not. But even if this family history bears no resemblance to your own, you’ll still love reading about them; in their messy, intricate and beautiful lives, full of misery, grace and the far-reaching bonds of love.