Reading for pleasure should be…well…a pleasure! Ann Patchett’s latest novel Commonwealth is her seventh, and is truly a pleasure to read. When my book club selected this for an upcoming meeting, it was my first experience of a Patchett novel, and I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The story is centred on the Keating and Cousins families. The Keatings are made up of policeman Fix (Francis Xavier), the father, and are rounded out by mother Beverly and daughters Caroline, four years old, and Frannie, just turned one. The Cousins family comprise lawyer and father Bert (Albert), mother Teresa, and their four young children—Cal, 6; Holly, 4; Jeannette, 2; and newborn Albie (also Albert), in that order.
Both families live in the Torrance area of California at the start of the novel, but the events of the book will eventually take them back and forth between California and the Commonwealth of Virginia over a period spanning more than 50 years.
When Bert, a virtual stranger, arrives uninvited at Franny’s christening party, sparks fly between himself and Beverly Keating, Fix’s beautiful wife. This eventually leads to the dissolution of both marriages and the relocation of the newly paired Bert and Beverly with the Cousins children to Virginia. While Fix and Bert’s ex-wife Teresa remain in California, the six children find themselves shuttled annually from the west coast to the east and back again, since all of them spend their summers together in Virginia.
The major focus of the novel is the tangled relationships that evolve among the children as they grow older and find their lives intertwining. There is only one truly dramatic, tragic highlight involving the children, and that event is approached rather circuitously and unfolded layer by layer throughout the book.
Franny, the main character, is the anchor, and the one we get to know best, although eventually the details of all the children’s lives, as well as the lives of their parents, are elaborated. The reader must be on high alert, for the story does not follow a particularly linear chronology, jumping somewhat erratically (and sometimes confusingly) from the childhood events of the six kids to the later-in-life serious illnesses of Fix and Teresa, then back to their young adulthood, then back to their teenage years, and so on. Along the way we are treated to Patchett’s deliciously witty prose and her astute observations on American middle class life in the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. It is noted early on that the children are united in their hatred of the parents, Bert and Beverly, who are responsible for this less-than-perfect arrangement, but the kids generally get along well among themselves.
While reading, I often found myself thinking what a wonderful “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie this would make (if they are still crafting those nostalgia-laden, “greeting-card” dramas), so strong is the visual component of this family saga. I think Patchett is well aware of this facet of her story. A portion of the book is devoted to the relationship that develops between thirty-something Franny and the much older novelist, Leon (Leo) Posen, one of Franny’s literary heroes who is very reminiscent of J.D. Salinger both in his talent and his paucity of output. During the five years he spends with Franny, he does finally produce a successful book, drawing heavily on Franny’s experiences with her extended family that she has related to him. Entitled Commonwealth, this novel-within-a-novel is ultimately turned into a movie and a forms a focal point for the stormy relations between the now fully grown children in the latter part of the book. (Perhaps it is not completely coincidental that one of Salinger’s novels about the trials and tribulations of growing up and coming of age is entitled Franny and Zooey.)
I must admit that a source of some confusion for me was keeping the six children attached to the appropriate parents and siblings. I would have appreciated—and applauded—if the children had been allocated to their families in a more homogeneous fashion, i.e. two girls in one family and four boys in the other, so I would not have to keep checking to remind myself who was related to whom. A minor quibble, though…. I suppose that when the muse calls concerns about symmetry are not always top of mind!
Patchett makes no secret of the fact that her novels are strongly autobiographical, and she shares with her characters (and with a sizable chunk of her viewers) the experience of a turbulently blended family. Her great gift is being able to highlight how the actions of the parents radiate down through the subsequent lives of the children. While doing this she puts into strong relief everyday details which make the story grounded and plausible. The novel is replete with especially memorable passages or turns of phrase. The chapter in which Franny and Leo rent a large summer home in Amagansett, a tony part of The Hamptons, is particularly amusing. The many visitors naturally assume that anyone who has rented such a palatial home would be more than happy to house and cook for a crowd. At one point when eight visitors have appeared unexpectedly, Leo notes, ”We should have rented a motel room in the middle of Kansas for the summer,” to which Franny replies, “They would have found us.”
On a more psychological level the narrator provides frequent astute appraisals: “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.”
In reference to Albie’s early relationship with his stepmother Beverly, the narrator observes, “The entire time Albie followed Beverly around the house doing what the children referred to as ‘The stripper soundtrack’: Boom chicka-boom, boom-boom, chicka-boom…If she took a single step it was accompanied by Albie saying only ‘boom’ in a voice that was weirdly sexual for a six-year-old.”
It is these minute details that make the story come vividly to life in the reader’s mind, and show that the commonwealth of the story is in large measure the product of individuals thrown together by circumstance and prompted by legitimate needs and desires.
Commonwealth, at 322 pages, is available in paperback via Lennoxville Library through interlibrary loan.