By Katy Goodwin-Bates
If you’re in the market for a lush, evocative book populated with authentically flawed characters in believable but gloriously melodramatic situations, allow me to help you out: you need look no further than Ann Patchett’s rich and delightful Commonwealth. I was a few chapters into this book when I suddenly realised what a thing of beauty it is, and from that point on I was essentially a melting pool of appreciation for Patchett’s enviable style.
A description that can be applied to many of my favourite books is “family drama,” and Commonwealth fits firmly into this category. It begins with a christening party in 1964, to which Bert Cousins arrives uninvited and, in a display of particularly poor etiquette, kisses the hostess (while she’s holding the newly-christened infant, Franny. It all strikes me as highly socially awkward and a great reason never to go to christening parties), setting in motion two marital breakups and the conjoining of two families. From this first chapter, Commonwealth moves fluidly in time, following the now-grown-up Franny in 1988 as a celebrated writer takes an interest in her family history, before zipping backwards and forwards to give a fuller picture of the whole extended family and their assorted tribulations.
There’s something strangely dreamlike about sections of Commonwealth, particularly that opening chapter, which moves seamlessly between different characters without allowing the reader to settle on anyone. The delicacy of Patchett’s prose only adds to this effect, appearing to meander around the party when, in actual fact, she’s showing us exactly what we need to know about her cast of characters; these first impressions inform the reader’s response throughout the novel. I particularly admired the shifts from one character or situation in one time frame to the next; the narrative never feels jarring despite these relatively regular adjustments. All in all, it’s a perfectly put together novel, with details hinted at and later explained, alternately creating anticipation and dread in the reader.
Aside from its plot of domestic complications, Commonwealth boasts a number of my personal favourite elements of fiction. When the two families are awkwardly combined, six previously unacquainted children find themselves suddenly expected to share bedrooms, parents and intimate moments. I have one sister, but, ever since reading Little Women as a child, I’ve harbored a fascination for large families, while acknowledging I probably wouldn’t have wanted to share a bathroom with any more people in my formative years; reading about such families, however, satiates this interest. Patchett includes so many subtle and seemingly insignificant details in the familial exchanges; the rejected wife, Teresa, for example, sends her four children luggage-less to spend the summer with their cheating father, wordlessly pointing out that she’s not the only parent capable of buying them toothbrushes. Inevitably, it’s their stepmother who is forced to deal with this, and the children are embarrassed and uncomfortable, rather than their father having any sense of the message being psychically communicated. It’s little details like this which punctuate the novel, giving it such a real sense of a family’s life being chronicled, in all its minutiae.
Here was the most remarkable thing about the Keating children and the Cousins children: they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty. The Cousinses did not prefer the company of Cousinses and the two Keatings could have done without each other entirely. The four girls were angry about being crowded together in a single room but they didn’t blame each other. The boys, who were always angry about everything, didn’t seem to care that they were in the company of so many girls. 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.
Throughout Commonwealth, I experienced a sense of really knowing these fractured and reassembled families; reflecting real life, I didn’t necessarily like all of the characters, but I did care about the collective, and, oddly, have continued to care since finishing the book. I now feel about the Cousins and Keatings families the same attachment I nurture for families I knew as a child, or perhaps those I vaguely know through teaching their children; I’m not involved in their lives, but I continue to care and wonder how they’re doing. When Franny’s meeting with Leon Posen, the writer, threatens the emotional balance of her extended family, I disliked him as much as Franny’s step-siblings and father did; Patchett’s characterisation inspires peculiarly protective feelings.
Overall, Commonwealth is sufficiently glossy to appeal as a light summer read, while featuring enough moments of human drama to become something far more intense and memorable too. A superbly written and subtly realised masterpiece, it’s quietly cinematic and fully worthy of its bestseller status.