A Review of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

commonwealth coverAnn Patchett’s sprawling domestic novel begins in 60s Los Angeles at a suburban christening party. The reader is immediately planted in the middle of the action and given a panoramic view of the scene. When handsome Bert arrives with a bottle of gin we see an almost comical jump to action as men roll up their shirtsleeves to squeeze oranges while women pour hefty measures into any vessel available. The atmosphere becomes increasingly hazy — the heat combining with the booze and sickly, sticky oranges in a way that fills the air with languid potential. This is where we witness a drunken kiss between Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating: the start of the chain of events that leads to the uneasy joining together of two families in a narrative that spans five decades.

The collected children of the Cousins and Keatings spend their young years being bandied between LA and Virginia, complete with passive aggressive gestures bestowed on them by their respective parents. The six siblings (and step-siblings) embark on long expeditions in coastal Virginia equipped with candy bars, a gun stolen from their fathers truck, a few Benadryls and a measure of gin. Tragedy strikes one summer, adding myriad layers of guilt and trauma that bind the children even tighter together.

The novel has a cyclical structure, effortlessly transporting the reader across America (and to Sweden) and over half a century. A twenty-something year old Franny (the baby whose christening opens the novel) meets a fifty-something novelist named Leo Posner while working at a hotel bar. At this encounter my eyeballs prepped themselves for some serious rolling, but the characters are crafted so…empathetically? that the impending affair becomes funny, flawed and honest. It is through Leo Posner that the novel-within-a-novel comes into being: when Franny tells him about the six siblings’ childhood and the tragic events that took place, he becomes reanimated as a writer and as a man, and makes a comeback in the form of Commonwealth, a novel based on these events.

Catching up with the Keating and Cousins children, we see that each has gone on to live entirely different lives. The youngest, Albie Keating, is arguably the most troubled of the six. Patchett, however, defies expectations and allows him to find what appears to be a happy ending. It is this unravelling of the readers’ expectations and subversion of cliché where Commonwealth really finds its appeal. Fix Keating says repeatedly “For the vast majority of people on this planet […] the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.” The way in which this novel deals with issues of fate or —for want of a less mushy word— destiny, ties into the cyclical structure of the text as a whole. Issues of family, of home (be it ideological or geographical), of death and of redemption are all part of the thread that weaves its way throughout the narrative. Storytelling itself, it seems, is what holds the most sway in the ideological struggles that present themselves. With storytelling comes responsibility and a need to account for oneself, which in turn allows for redemption.

In an article in the Guardian Sarah Churchwell discusses the novel’s function as allegory for the United States themselves, stating that the novel posits two alternatives, “Independence or collectivity: the great question America never answers.” The answer, it seems safe to at least gesticulate, is narrative and shared experience. As a middle-aged Franny drives along with an aged Fix Keating, she thinks “All the stories go with you, […] All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for. All the ways to get to Torrance.” Commonwealth captures these fleeting moments deftly, self-referentially and wisely.

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