Kisses are consequential in Ann Patchett’s books. I remember Bel Canto opening with a kiss, a kiss everyone remembered even if they did not see it. In Commonwealth everyone will be affected by that kiss, even if they did not see it. Commonwealth opens with a christening party to celebrate Franny (Frances), the second daughter born to Fix (Francis) and Beverly Keating. Albert Cousins shows up uninvited, crashing a party of someone he does not know in order to avoid the noise and bother of his own wife and three, soon to be four, children. He is immediately attracted by Beverly’s extraordinary beauty and inexplicably kisses her. More inexplicably, she kisses him back.
Well, we know what happens next. The modern blended family and what that means is Patchett’s métier. Commonwealth tells the story of the Keatings and the Cousins, Beverly and Albert marry, forcing his four children and her two children into a new family of summer siblings who bond during joyous and dangerous escapes from parental supervision and scrutiny. Some people might even say parental neglect, but I am a fan of letting kids play in the woods and lakes without hovering parents.
There are moments when we think we know where the story is going, but then we will be surprised. The building of tension and its release, sometimes by the narrative flowing into the life of another member of this family, these several siblings and parents whose stories retell events from different perspectives, redefining the idea of narrative and story by exposing how what really happened is unknowable because what we think happened is more important.
There is so much depth to this novel that it is hard to understand how she got it into a little over 300 pages. There are so many lives whose stories are told, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely. There is so much of the artistry of writing on display as well. For example, oranges are almost totemic, appearing again and again. Trees, blossoms, slices, juice, and cocktails, oranges are everywhere. Then, the structure of the novel, set off by parties at the beginning and the end, Franny’s Christening Party that introduced Bert and Beverly to each other, fracturing their families and Beverly’s Christmas Eve Party that Franny attended, a night that sparked her memories of what she lost and what she gained from her summer siblings and stepfather.
I loved this book. The story is quite ordinary, really. There are so many families who are amalgams of broken marriages, families who shift boundaries throughout the year. Summer siblings and winter strangers. Even stranger, these step-siblings share one parent while the other parent is almost always unknown, unseen, a mystery. The modern family is often a assemblage of moving parts and Patchett captures this reality beautifully.
The real magic though is how her stories flow. Our window into the family story changes as the narrative focuses on this parent, that child or the other child without sharp divisions. It is almost magical how smoothly the narrative may go from an event that seems to close out one character’s story to smoothly retelling events years early that make that person the center of the narrative for a time. The story goes from person to person, past to present and past again, but with such natural shifts that it feels like a stream of many consciousnesses. Streaming consciousness is something Patchett does well and there is a scene of someone trying to meditate for the first time that is all-too-real and so very funny.
There is a logical or factual flaw that annoyed me. One of the children suffered from allergies and always carried Benadryl in case of exposure. Benadryl just does not work fast enough and is not effective enough. With a serious allergy, at that time, he would have carried an epinephrine inhaler. In the story, he relied on Benadryl and they had epinephrine and a syringe that had been left at home. Auto-injectors had been invented, but were not approved for sale. It’s a small thing, but an annoying weakness in the story.
This is a story of family, and families are sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, sometimes tragic and heartbreaking. But as with most families, it is full of love at the foundation.
- Commonwealth at Harper Collins
- Ann Patchett web site
- Ann Patchett interview by her colleagues at her bookstore