Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Harper| September 2016| 241 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-240353-7
What may have been an innocent kiss at a summer party leads to breaking up two families and cobbling together another in best-selling author Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth. As she’s so deftly done in previous novels [Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder] she writes humorously and movingly about seemingly disparate individuals connected by a shared experience. Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating move from California to Virginia along with Beverly’s two daughters Caroline and Franny. When the girls return from visiting their father in California, Patchett writes: “Beverly dropped to her knees to hug them but they were nothing but ghosts. Caroline wanted to live with her father. She begged for it, she pleaded, and year after year she was denied. Caroline’s hatred for her mother radiated through the cloth on her pink camp shirt as her mother pressed Caroline to her chest. Franny on the other hand simply stood there and tolerated the embrace. She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she saw her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.” Oh divorce. . I’m a child of divorce but don’t have a blended family nor do I maintain relationships with my siblings or step-cousins.
Bert’s four children—Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie—remain with their mother but visit Virginia each summer. The six children bond over a disdain for their parents. Patchett writes: “The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked their parents. They hated them.” They roam about without parental guidance and get themselves into varying degrees of trouble. The divorce of course affects each child differently. Cal, the oldest, leads the pack carrying a gun because that’s what one does in Virginia apparently. The children also give the littlest boy Albie allergy meds [telling him they are Tic Tacs] to knock him out so he won’t get underfoot. Many children of the 60s, 70s and 80s explored without constant adult supervision. A friend and I took our horses swimming in a man-made pond until the developers complained.
After Cal’s sudden death one summer, the children see less of each other. Spanning 50 years, Patchett develops the characters into adulthood where other events bring the step-siblings back together at times. Caroline, who diligently studied an LSAT book her father gave her for Christmas during childhood and her teen years, become an attorney. Jeanette lives in New York with her doctor husband. Albie is the most transient and troubled of them all. Holly escaped everything to a Buddhist community in Switzerland where she spends her days meditating. When her mom visits, Patchett paints a vivid picture of Holly’s chosen lifestyle and her mom’s discomfort yet willingness to participate in order to see her daughter. There’s much focus on Franny, who I loved. She doesn’t quite know what she wants to do with herself and to that I can definitely relate. Patchett writes: “For someone who had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on.” While working, she meets the author Leon Posen, decades older than her, whom she greatly admires. They become lovers and she tells him about that summer and he writes a best-selling novel about it. Two decades later when the film version hits theaters, Franny is married with stepchildren and she and Caroline visit their father, Fix, now in his 80s and dying from cancer and take him to see the film.
The novel deftly traverses between different time periods as readers discover what happened to Cal and what everyone’s now doing as an adult. Some characters and scenes resonate more than others. It’s quite a large and unwieldy cast of characters and some of them can get lost in the pages. At times I became slightly slowed down by remembering how one character connected to another. In these characters readers will find some commonality, some connection and that makes the novel thoroughly readable and satisfying.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.