This story begins in suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s with Bert Cousins arriving at the Christening party of baby Franny Keating. Bert is a lawyer associated with the attorney general’s office. He has not been invited to the party but heard about it through a colleague and, being a bit of a scoundrel, takes advantage of the occasion to escape having to spend Sunday with his own young, boisterous family. Franny’s father, Fix Keating, answers the door and lets Bert in, vaguely recognising him from his work as a police detective. Bert brings an odd christening gift, a large bottle of vodka and proceeds to insinuate his way into the festivities picking the ripe oranges from a backyard tree and squeezing the juice with the help of Fix’s beautiful wife, Beverley. They mix cocktails that make the rounds of the party until everyone is just a little tipsy. The occasion is sunny and sumptuously sensuous and everyone’s life is changed forever when Beverley and Bert share a kiss. Two divorces ensue and eventually Bert and Beverley settle in Virginia while Bert’s ex wife and children go on living in California as does Fix. There is no blending of two families here but a loose commonwealth of broken ones. Fix and Beverley’s two daughters Franny and Caroline live in Virginia and visit their father on holiday. Bert’s four children spend the summer vacations with Bert and Beverley in Virginia. During the summer the six children are sometimes thrown together and left on their own to get along. Bert and Beverley are the exact opposite of helicopter parents and are so infatuated with each other they are content to sleep away their mornings while the children wander about looking for amusement. Tragedy ensues when, during one of these collective vacations one of Bert’s children dies. The finer details of the circumstance linked to the child’s death remain a secret among the children as only they know exactly what went on that day and even then, it is only with the passage of time they come to fully understand the truth. Here, the first half of the story ends.
The novel leaps ahead almost thirty years and Franny is having an affair with a well-established novelist named Leo Posen who is much older than she is. He is going through a period of writer’s block and desperate for inspiration. He mulls over the stories Franny has told him about her childhood and the commonwealth of children and parents. He uses these details to construct a new and subsequently prizewinning novel. The other family members quickly come to recognise that Leo’s novel is the retelling of the Keating-Cousins story. Confrontation ensues, then reconciliation and finally an understanding of sorts. … and so the story goes, back and forth in time from one event to another, filtered through the different characters. The truth is obscured by the way memory edits events. Fiction can pick and choose details from anywhere to serve a story without having to answer for the consequences because in the end it is just a story.
The novel was constructed cleverly. It has ten characters and covers a period of fifty years in in 322 pages. The fact that it has not taken on the proportions of War and Peace is an accomplishment in itself. The way the Ann Patchett did this was by selectively dipping into the stream of each character’s biography at different times in their lives, spending a very little time with some and long periods with some of the others such as Franny. Readers were meant to fill in the gaps. However I felt a few of the gaps are too wide. One big omission was some understanding of what Beverley found in Bert Cousins that would cause her to leave her first husband. Fix is described as a perfectly amiable sort while Bert is a bit of a cad having few redeeming characteristics except that he was good looking and successful at work. Until the very last chapter there is no insight into Beverley’s character or any attempt to elaborate her motives. In some biographical note I learned that the author herself was the child of a broken family cobbled together after divorce and remarriage. I am wondering if the lack of empathy with Beverley as a woman, wife and mother is a reflection of something profoundly painful in the author’s life that has dissuaded her from thinking about the unthinkable; a mother sacrificing her family for a handsome stranger who arrives uninvited to a christening party.
Perhaps the reason I struggled with this book is because I can be a lazy reader and felt in this case I had to work quite hard to imagine the missing details. The prose was lovely but not lovely enough for me to say I particularly enjoyed The Commonwealth.