Jump all those fifty years, more or less. Beverly’s ex, Fix Keating, the one she had left for Bert When Bert Cousins saw Beverly Keating it was love at first sight. Never mind that they met at the christening party for her second child. Never mind that Bert had a wife and several progeny of his own. He wanted this incredibly beautiful woman. This was the start of his life. It was also the end of two marriages, beginning a ripple that would continue spreading its impact over the next half century.
Jump all those fifty years, more or less. Beverly’s ex, Fix Keating, the one she had left for Bert, is battling cancer. His daughter, Franny, the baby being christened in chapter one, is there to help out. Jump back to Bert and Beverly moving to Virginia in the 1960s, her two kids in tow and his four arriving for the summer. Jump to Franny working at a Chicago bar after dropping out of law school, and meeting a literary icon. The large jumps mean that we get only small fragments of entire lifetimes. It may be the writer’s impulse, as it is for many visual artists, to pare a story down to essentials, significant moments that define the substance of the tale being told. This happened then, and the rest followed from that. The notion being, I expect, that you don’t really need all that in-between material to see the path. If we see cause (pebble in the pond) we don’t need to see every single ripple, or the spaces between them, to understand that the ripples we do see arrived as a result of the initial stone.
Ann Patchett - from The Guardian
Commonwealth, another strong addition to Ann Patchett’s body of work, should be sold with springs in the binding for the considerable chronological leaps Patchett takes in giving us a portrait of people and families that emerge from the marital mixer. Given how many folks these days lived, live or will live in blended families, Patchett among them us, there should be plenty of resonance for large portions of the reading public. The Keating kids move with their mother from California to Virginia when Beverly remarries. This echoes the author’s history, as she had made a similar move as a kid when her mother remarried, leaving LA for Tennessee. Her stepfather’s four kids stayed in California, as Bert’s kids do in the novel. The commonwealth of kids in both Patchett’s actual life and in her novel comes in at a half dozen, so she knows of what she writes. Her father, like Fix Keating had career in the LAPD. Patchett made good use of her work as a waitress to inform her description of Franny working at a bar in Chicago. There is plenty more of Ann Pachett’s life sewn into her story.
There are two major events in the book from which much of the repercussion spreads. Beverly leaving her husband to marry someone else and move a continent away, and a tragic death that take place when the six kids are all together in the east.
In The Getaway Car, a memoir-ish piece she wrote about writing (included in her non-fic collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), Patchett notes
...I’ve always been grateful (and somewhat amazed) that I read The Magic Mountain in my high school English class. That novel’s basic plot—a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society in confinement—became the story line for just about everything I’ve ever written.That would certainly fit here as the six step-sibs form their own community of sorts, one in which they may not have absolute power, but one in which they exercise as much group autonomy as possible. The circumstance in which they find themselves and the relationships that are formed there will affect the rest of their lives.
Maybe the point is that we are all in it together, for better or worse, for ups and downs, for dislocation and for stasis, for jumps and for landings. Maybe it is just Patchett telling the story of her family. You could take it either way, or both ways. Neither interpretation would require a leap.
There is a lot here on parenting. Much of it reflecting the attitudes of different eras. It is not so strange, for example, that a 1960s lawyer would leave most of the parenting to his homemaker wife, or wives, as the case may be. That reflected the pre-Lib ethos that ruled at the time. But Bert is definitely presented as an absentee parent. His ex, coping as a single mother with four kids, is stretched to the limit,
The speed at which their mother ran from work to school to the grocery store to home had doubled. She was always arriving, always leaving, never there.but there is definitely a question as to how attentive a mother she would have been under any circumstances. Patchett plays the cheaper-by-the-half-dozen set up for a bit of light humor.
Their mother made everyone line up in the kitchen according to age and come to the stove with their plate instead of putting the food on the table in dishes as she did every other night of the year. In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.And there is one particular bit involving the youngest of the crew, six-year-old Albie and some inappropriate music, that is howlingly funny. But there are events in the half-dozen’s time together that are as serious as a heart attack. And those secrets threaten to come to light when Franny’s literary fling absorbs the family tale from her and reproduces it as an original novel, titled Commonwealth. And then, worse, a movie.
The big time shifts in Commonwealth were both jarring and refreshing. Definitely makes the reader heat up those gray cells and get them sparking. I did wish, however that there had been more material about several of the characters. And some more indication of why they were the way they were. Why, for example, was Bev so open to moving on from her first marriage? The structure holds with only a few supporting pillars, but I wanted more rebar, closer together. I was reminded of Jennifer Haigh’s novel, Baker Towers, which was pretty good. But the author later wrote News From Heaven, a story collection that fleshed out the Baker Towers stories some more. I have no idea if Patchett has more material in store for these characters, but it would not be a bad idea if she did.
Patchett’s writing here is closer to home than in some of her well-known novels. Her birthplace, Los Angeles, instead of Bel Canto’s unspecified Somewhere, South America, Virginia (standing in for Tennessee when she grew up and where she still lives) instead of the remote Amazon of State of Wonder. The characters and situations, clearly drawn from Patchett’s life, resonate with a palpable reality, even though no one of them holds the stage long enough. Connections are made between events and their consequences, supported by a swath of vignette and sharp observation. You are unlikely to relate to all the commonwealth members or their outer circle, but there are bound to be some characters who trip your connection switches, and others whose circumstances, and maybe ways of being you will recognize.
A society of people will not rise, fall or sustain, as a result of reading Commonwealth, but it would definitely be in their collective self-interest to do so. It is a fascinating look at how change can affect our lives, and how we might find some sustenance by facing the world with the help and support of those with whom we have been thrown together.
Publication - 9/13/2016
Review Posted - 6/10/2016
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
Patchett seems to have stopped adding tweets to her Twitter page in 2011, but the feed from the bookstore in which she is a partner, Parnassus Books, is alive and well
The only other Ann Patchett book I have reviewed is State of Wonder. I have read but not reviewed Bel Canto and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
A musical item of possible relevance
November 23, 2016 - Commonwealth is named to the NY Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2016
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