Commonwealth—A Modern Family Saga

Commonwealth

By Ann Patchett

Published 2016

Read Nov 2021

This reader has definitely become an Ann Patchett fan.  This book, like The Dutch House, focuses on family, in this case two families that are joined through divorce and remarriage. 

Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the LA district attorney office, shows up uninvited to the christening party for Franny Keating.  He is mainly trying to avoid going home while his pregnant wife, Teresa, deals with their other three kids.  The gallon of gin he brings as a christening party gift helps lubricate the party. When running an errand for Fix (Frances Keating, Franny’s father) Bert encounters Franny’s mother and they share a kiss. 

The author chooses to tell her story in pieces and from the perspective of a number of the characters.  Thus, after the party scene, the next scene is sometime later.  In between the scenes we see, both the Keatings and the Cousins have divorced, Bert Cousin and Beverly Keating have married and moved to Virginia (apparently in part so that Bert Cousins can be geographically isolated from Fix Keating and perhaps personally safer), and the various family parts have gone through a number of cycles of kids spending time with their non-custodial parents during their summer vacation from school.  Beverly’s two girls stay with Fix for two weeks in the summer.  This provides Bert and Beverly a vacation from any kids for two weeks before Beverly’s girls return and the four Cousins children arrive for several weeks. Despite Bert’s stated desire to Teresa, his first wife, that he wants a big family with lots of kids, Bert’s actions continue to suggest otherwise.  Just as he was “consumed with work” when married to Teresa, he suddenly has lots of work requiring his attention when his children visit, leaving Beverly to attempt to manage the six children.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of several of the children and primarily from Fanny Keating’s.  We spend quite a bit of time with her when she is in her twenties and she meets and moves in with a famous writer who is in a writing slump.  She tells him, and us, many stories about the various adventures the six kids had when they were generally unsupervised.  After they break up, the author publishes a new comeback novel, “Commonwealth”, which is a very thinly disguised version of the stories she told him.  Franny was unaware he wrote this book and is quite unsettled by it as are most of her siblings, especially Albie, the youngest Cousin who was born after Beverly and Bert shared that first kiss and likely not too soon before his parents’ divorce. 

Thus, one of the sets of questions Patchett highlights, although she doesn’t answer, is whether it’s ethical to publish a novel or stories that are very closely based on real life stories, especially when “the characters” are unaware of this.  Pat Conroy’s books are closely based on aspects of his own real life and he is quite up front about it.  Many authors have somewhat autobiographical elements in their work.  Often this can make the work feel very believable.  Ann Patchett acknowledges that her life shared some of the aspects of the siblings in this book.  The famous writer in this book does not acknowledge the source of his stories. 

But the most compelling aspect of Patchett’s work is her telling of the stories within this complex family—two sets of children that are thrown together as “step-siblings” by their respective parent’s marriage– and four adults who are parents and step-parents.  There are many sets of interesting relationships—step-siblings with each other, “real” siblings with each other and with their parents, children with their step-parents, and with their “step-siblings” custodial parent.  The novel covers about fifty years so over the course of the book these relationships evolve over time as the kids grow up and the adults age.  All of the scenes are brilliantly and believably told.  A case in point—while now we would equip a child with a bee sting allergy with an epi-pen, these devices weren’t available until 1987 and scene of the six sibling’s adventures on vacation while their parent/step-parent sleep (“We’re sleeping late.  Do not knock.  Eat at the diner.”) is in the 1970’s when anti-histamines a common bee sting kit.  Their adventures that day are hair-raising to the adult in this reader but clearly a rollicky good time for the kids at the time. 

This reader looks forward to reading more from this skillful and engaging author who challenges the reader in subtle and interesting ways. 

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