Reviewed by Victoria
You might think that writing a chronicle of a modern family might be a step down in terms of drama for Ann Patchett from opera singers held hostage or experimental fertility drugs being created in the Amazon. But you would be mistaken. Commonwealth is the everyday tale of a non-nuclear family, split by divorce and distance, doused in anger, roasted over tragedy and then able to rise, phoenix-like from its own ashes. There’s nothing dull or mundane about Patchett’s tale, even though its structure is curiously offbeat and indirect, eschewing the big scenes where Things Really Happen for the foothills of event. It’s an original and innovative strategy and one that has unexpected benefits: there is a palpable sense of danger and tension, a waiting-for-disaster that keeps you gripped to the narrative, fascinated to know how things will turn out. And Patchett is generous to her readers. We follow her characters to middle-age and to the brink of the grave, with no fate left unturned.
‘The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin,’
So the story begins. True to form, Cousins shouldn’t really be there at all, but he is desperate to escape the joys of family life – his own family, that is – and has left pregnant wife Teresa alone with their three small children and come in search of more adult entertainment. Cousins is a district attorney in the same town where Fix Keating is a cop. The christening party is for Fix and Beverly’s second daughter, Frannie, and once it is marinated in gin, it turns into a longer, looser, more uncontrolled affair than intended. Beverly Keating is a blond beauty and Albert Cousins, who stays much later than he said he would, steals a kiss from her up in the nursury where she has come to change the baby. It’s not so much a kiss as a sign of intent. Cousins has decided that Beverly must be his prize, that two families are going to be torn apart to satisfy his restless whim.
The narrative jumps from this point to a cancer ward, much, much later. Fix Keating is slowly dying and his daughter, Frannie, has come to keep him company during his chemotherapy. She has the ulterior motive of wanting to squeeze the stories out of him that she has never before heard, because Frannie hasn’t lived with her father since she was a very small child. Not many years after that fateful party, Albert Cousins and Beverly Keating left their partners to marry one another. Cousins moved back to Virginia, his home state, taking Beverly and her daughters. Teresa Cousins stayed in California with her four children, and arrangements were made for them to spend summers with their father. The result is an unruly, ill-disciplined, scarcely controllable scrum of six displaced and unhappy kids, whose only pleasure comes from either torturing their miscreant parents or undertaking their own adventures which always teeter on the very edge of misfortune. Perhaps my favourite chapter of the book is the one in which one of the children’s summer holidays is described. It is mesmerising car-crash narrative stuff, exquisitely real, funny and terrible.
The rest of the novel works to fill in the gaps between the party and Fix Keating’s old age as the young members of the family scatter into a diaspora and attempt their own lives. There has been a tragedy – announced off-handedly to the reader – that I won’t spoil for you, but like much in this novel, it is not narrated directly, only in fragments and shifting perspectives as different people bring their own experiences to the story. In some ways, you could understand the shape of this novel through the stories of Frannie – child of Francis Keating – and Albie – the unborn child of Albert Cousins in that opening chapter – as they intertwine with one another. For Frannie becomes involved with a famous American novelist (imagine a combination of Philip Roth and John Updike) who will steal the story of her upbringing and turn it into a novel of his own, one that will shock and stun Albie, the much-disliked youngest child, who will only then learn of the role he has played in the tragic events that unfold.
This is a brilliant novel in so many ways, utterly engaging, wonderfully written, innovatively organised. But for me it does have a weakness. The final few chapters lose the edge that characterises the rest of the book, as Patchett turns her characters into good, noble people. If there’s any intent here, it’s a profoundly optimistic one, a hopeful insistence on the way kids in highly dysfunctional families can still turn out well, forgive one another, find their way to the source of love they always wanted. That’s lovely, and heartfelt. But I have to admit I much prefered the Keatings and the Cousins when they were behaving badly.
Still, there is so much to enjoy in Commonwealth, which takes the metaphor of disparate countries, united only by the fact of their union, and turns it into the common wealth that a family may create over time, of love and hatred and all the rich experience that turns us into the complicated beings we become.
Victoria is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth (Bloomsbury: September 2016) 978-1408880401, hardback, 336 pp.
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