Written by Ann Patchett
Published by HarperCollins on September 13th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Family Life, Literary
The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.
One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.
When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.
Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.
COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett: Book Thoughts
I’ve quoted the opening paragraph of Ann Patchett’s fall 2016 novel Commonwealth below. It grabbed me instantly–I was on the Keatings’ doorstep, waiting to enter that party and meet these people. Three hundred some-odd pages later, I’d spent more than fifty years with them.
The uninvited guest with the bottle of gin at that front door in Southern California sets off a chain of events that will break up two marriages and produce a third. Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating bring a total of six children into their new family back in Virginia. But this bunch will never be the Bradys, and ultimately they won’t stay together either. (None of this is spoiler material, by the way.)
The christening party was for Franny Keating, Fix and Beverly’s last child. Years later, Franny enters law school as both she and her sister Caroline planned. She changes the plan by dropping out, and she’s working as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago when she encounters renowned author Leon Posen. Posen produces his acclaimed novel Commonwealth during their years together, which end on a dramatic confrontation with Franny’s former stepbrother Albie Cousins. (Most of this isn’t spoiler material either if you read the publisher’s synopsis.) (I didn’t.)
Commonwealth has all the trappings of “sprawling family saga”. There’s a large cast with complicated relationships explored over a long time span. And yet, Patchett tells it so economically. She gives narrative voice to just a few characters, and yet they all made vivid impressions on me. But what impressed me more was how Patchett renders the complicated, enduring ties between people who have lived as family. Even when I didn’t quite buy what these people were doing, I believed who they were.
This is what I said about Commonwealth (Patchett’s, not Posen’s) on Litsy:
I liked this one up until it went meta…and then I REALLY liked it. It has a “novel in stories” feel thanks to all the characters & perspective shifts. The relationships are complicated & convincing (although at times the plot is less so) and the dialogue is well-done. Maybe not as impressive as Patchett’s last novel, STATE OF WONDER , but COMMONWEALTH was a win for me.
I actually haven’t read State of Wonder yet, although I do own a copy. I read Bel Canto years ago, back when everyone first heard of Ann Patchett. Her memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship is on my “keeper” shelf. I liked her second novel, The Magician’s Assistant, even before I started working down the street from The Magic Castle. But I think Commonwealth may be my favorite of Patchett’s novels so far. I know it’s one of my favorite novels of this year.
The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin. Fix was smiling when he opened the door and he kept smiling as he struggled to make the connection: it was Albert Cousins from the district attorney’s office standing on the cement slab of his front porch. He’d opened the door twenty times in the last half hour–to neighbors and friends and people from church and Beverly’s sister and all his brothers and their parents and practically an entire precinct worth of cops–but Cousins was the only surprise. Fix had asked his wife two weeks ago why she thought they had to invite every single person they knew in the world to a christening party and she’d asked him if he wanted to look over the guest list and tell her who to cut. He hadn’t looked at the list, but if she were standing at the door he would have pointed straight ahead and said, Him. Not that he disliked Albert Cousins, he didn’t know him other than to put his name together with his face, but not knowing him was the reason not to invite him. Fix has the thought that maybe Cousins had come to his house to talk about a case: nothing like that had ever happened before but what else was the explanation? Guests were milling around in the front yard, and whether they were coming late or leaving early or just taking refuge outside because the house was packed beyond what any fire marshal would all, Fix couldn’t say. What he was sure of was that Cousins was there uninvited, alone with a bottle in a bag.