Commonwealth

Commonwealth

Fifty per cent of all North American children experience the divorce of their parents. Talented author Ann Patchett explores her own family’s divorce in this novel, altered, of course, as all fiction is.

A chance meeting at a 1960s christening causes two families to divide and then merge in new ways.  The novel jumps around in the lives of the Cousinses and Keatings. Fix Keating is a Los Angeles cop, and Bert Cousins, an attorney who moves to Virginia. When Cousins falls hard for Keating’s wife, Beverly, at the christening, two families are forever tied though they end up living across the continent from each other.

The novel proceeds from the perfectly realized christening—where many of the guests are cops and the families of cops, and many of the partiers get drunk including some of the children, to one lakeside vacation where the blended children of the two families seek their own adventures while their parent and step-parent laze away in bed until mid-afternoon.

In this scene one of the older girls, Franny, adroitly shows the other children how to open a locked car door with a hanger. (Her father Bert believes that all children should know the ins and outs of investigations.)  In the glove compartment, they find a gun, and a flask of liquor.The children put cokes and candy bars on the tab at the motel restaurant.

Their walk through a sun-drenched prickly field becomes dangerous when they take pills, drink liquor and get broiled by sun. The reader keeps expecting something much worse to occur as the youngest child of the blended family, Albie, is left alone in the field after taking drugs.

In another scene, you discover that the fathers of both families urge all the children to become lawyers; one because he thinks it’s a noble profession and a great education even if the child chooses to do something else; while, the second, Fix Keating, says it’s because you make a good salary.

Franny is the character the reader knows best; she gives up law school to become a bar waitress and meets a famous author, Leo Posen, who basically steals her family’s story to write a novel that is also called Commonwealth.

Metafiction aside this novel is a collection of stories: the tragic death of one child, the pyromania of another, the Buddhism of an adult child who moves to Switzerland to medicate herself through meditation.  It also examines aging and death and how siblings take turns caring for their parents and step-parents.

At heart it is about the ties that develop not only between spouses but also between parents and children, step-parents and children, and kids not biologically related who become siblings for life not just for the summers they spend together as children.

Another book that examines the relationships of siblings and other family members is Tessa Hadley’s The Past, which is lyrically written too, and also cuts to the core of family dynamics.