Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper
Publication date: September 13th 2016
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Historical, Literary
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The Keatings and the Cousins turn into one extended broken family when Mr. Cousins decides to kiss Mrs. Keating at her daughter Franny’s christening. Two divorces and relocation follow and what were two distinct sets of children merge into one unruly tribe in Virginia every summer. This is Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, and it is a story as comforting in its familial familiarity as it is startling with its surprises.
The parents may exert the control in Commonwealth but it is the rebellious force of Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie, Caroline and Franny that drives the story. As they are forced into family vacations and weeks spent away from home and friends they are united in one goal. Wreak havoc on the adults and try to ditch Albie whenever possible because he is a nuisance of the highest order.
The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.
In this way, they have the vacations every kid dreams of: mayhem and adventures their pre-occupied parents know nothing about.
In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.
Right up until the summer when one seemingly innocuous event that changes everything and sends them spiraling out of each other’s orbits. Each flies away to a very different life—Jeanette with her African husband and little boy in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, Holly in an ashram in Switzerland, Franny as a cocktail waitress in Chicago. Albie out there somewhere unknown for eight years. For him
Bad habits were all a matter of perspective, and as long as the present was viewed through the lens of the past, anyone would say he was doing a spectacular job.
There are only nine chapters in the forty-year span of Commonwealth. They sweep back and forth through the decades, following children and parents and children becoming parents. Patchett writes these long chapters about a specific time in one of the children’s lives as they come back together and fall apart through adulthood. Her mastery of her craft is evident in that each chapter ends at a critical juncture in the storyline and with a blank page on one side. The interrupted flow of her words gives the disconcerting feeling that a door has closed and there is no going back. A tension is generated that doesn’t dissipate until a few sentences into the next chapter when Patchett, with a quiet determination, leads the story right where it needs to go. She never lets the reader down.
In the same way, it’s the simple things Patchett captures and reflects back at us that make her storytelling so genuine. When the sheer frustration of being a single mother of four obscures the love or the unendurable annoyance of the youngest sibling. The feeling of being caught in divorced parents’ head games or thinking on you’re vacation only to find out you’re the cook and hostess while everyone else relaxes. These things are not highlighted or presented as momentous events, they just flow through the story, bringing back memories time and again of all our lives. This is the beauty and mystery of Commonwealth; not its uniqueness or grand themes, but the basics of love, guilt, family and what we do to survive.