Ann Patchett knows the power of the sudden jolt in her stories. I remember finding it in Bel Canto and in State of Wonder, but I almost missed it in her latest novel – Commonwealth. The story slowly unravels, as two families are torn apart by pride and lust, and then slowly reassembled through love. Amazingly, the crises seem almost familiar, and the real secret of survival may be the illusions and perceptions the characters carry with them through years of denial.
Patchett sows the seeds in her opening gambit when beautiful Beverly, married to her policeman husband, passionately kisses the handsome attorney, Bert Cousins, father to three small children and one on the way, at her daughter’s christening. Was it the gin in the orange juice or deeper discontent driving their passion? The reader doesn’t have to wait long before Patchett has the two moved to Virginia with Beverley’s two little girls, Caroline and Franny. In the summer, Bert’s four children join in – a blended family of intolerance.
While the two lovebirds are cementing their attraction, the children suffer each new chapter of their lives, hating each other and the loss of their old lives, angry and unforgiving. They run wild in the summer, and the older children regularly drug Albie, the youngest, with Benadryl to shut him down and keep him out of their antics. While Teresa, mother of Bert’s four hellions, is back in California working at her new job, Beverly finds herself hiding in her air-conditioned car in Virginia to escape the children.
Patchett cleverly shifts gears and creates suspense by teasing the reader with cliffhangers as she suddenly jumps from present to past and future in alternating chapters spanning fifty years. The children speak as adults, some of whom have forged unlikely alliances. The first indication of a change in atmosphere in the novel comes with the death of the eldest boy, Cal, with lingering repercussions for the other children, as they reveal their roles in the coverup.
But the big jolt comes later in the book, when Franny’s new love, the older Leon Posen, a famous writer who has hit writer’s block after his last big success, creates his masterpiece – titled “Commonwealth.” Patchett is so convincing, I found myself googling Posen and looking for his book, almost missing the point of his stealing Franny’s stories about her childhood for his use. Dysfunctional families may be fodder for a bestseller, but when Posen uses the details of Cal’s death and the children’s secret drugging of Albie, fact and fiction become alarmingly the same – exposing harmful secrets. I wondered if Patchett was also sending a subtle message with the title – the possibility of her using stories from her own life in her fiction?
Just as the slide you went down as a child seemed so much bigger than it does to you as an adult, and just as the teacher you idolized as a child seems not as old when you are grown, the mere action of having her adult characters look back on their time together as children offers a philosophical and healing balm. They all adjust and forgive, and they see their parents’ actions and their own frantic childhoods from a wiser perspective.
Each of us plays the cards we are dealt, and Patchett offers the consolation that however our lives evolve, we can find some way to be true to ourselves and those we love.
Commonwealth is another winner from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers. I could not stop reading the book until I finished in the wee hours of the morning, and I may have to read it again.