I’ve read Ann Patchett’s work in the past because of her renown as a great writer and storyteller. The two I had chosen were Run and Bel Canto, and frankly, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. In both, the story lines were interesting, yet the characters two-dimensional. I wanted to be a Patchett fan, but I just couldn’t get there. That’s changed with her latest release, Commonwealth.
Commonwealth creates a story that is certainly not as unique as Run or Bel Canto, but far more accessible. And so are the characters. Patchett has brought them to life and turned them over to us - in their states of joy and despair - with feeling this time. The novel comprises two California families who collide after a single kiss - the Cousins and the Keatings are broken apart, crammed together, and broken again. The Keatings, a family of four, and the Cousins, a family of six come together after Bert Cousins decides he’d be better off with the lovely Beverly Keating than his own wife, Teresa. Marriages break apart, taking Bert and Beverly to Virginia, the kids separated from their parents at intervals, with all six children spending summers together.
It is during these summers together the kids accept their miserable circumstances and unite in their hatred for their parents; and largely unsupervised, learn to survive harshness and kindness alike from each other and their parents. Patchett brings us along five decades of growing up as a Keating or Cousins parent and child - the journeys of each, how they relate to one another throughout their lives, and how they deal with the tragedies that occur along the way. What makes this more interesting is instead of focusing on tragedy itself, Patchett moves her lens across the characters to examine how it affects each of them over the years.
The youngest, Albie Cousins, the bane of everyone’s existence, is loud, constantly in motion, and frankly quite funny at times. His interactions with his stepmother bring some balanced humor. Although we see significant changes in Albie as the years go by and watching him grow is wonderfully expressed. The oldest, also a Cousins child, is Cal, who is brooding and plotting, but we never find out to what end. The book turns considerable attention to Franny Keating and her life as a cocktail waitress, turned mistress to a famous novelist, turned… Well, you’ll have to read for more, but Franny seems to be the vortex of the narrative and a character with layers of weighty emotion.
The characters are complex and gritty, and their weaknesses become almost forgivable given their circumstances. As their paths cross in adulthood and old age, there is an understanding and acceptance of past sins - and a kind of peace found. Commonwealth provides more depth of character than I’ve read with Patchett previously, and she uses thoughtful restraint in unfolding their story. It was just enough for a great read.
Vickie’s rating: 4 stars