Ann Patchett hits the trifecta with “Commonwealth”–great writing, great story telling and great insight–all told in a matter of fact style with a touch of humor.
“Commonwealth” is about family–which means it’s about love and hate, betrayal and forgiveness, expectations and disappointment, life and death. The story begins when deputy District Attorney Albert (Bert) Cousins crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, meets and immediately falls in love with Franny’s extraordinarily beautiful mother Beverly and two separate families suddenly become intwined. Bert leaves his pregnant wife Teresa and their three children and Beverly leaves her police officer husband Fix. Beverly and Bert marry and along with Beverly’s two daughters, Caroline and Franny, they move from Los Angeles to Virginia. Teresa is left with four children to raise on her own in Los Angeles, although Bert does suggest that she move with them to Virginia. “That was all it took for Teresa Cousins to spend the rest of her life in Los Angeles.”
The Cousins children (Cal, Holly, Jennette and Albie) come to Virginia every year and the six children together wreak the kind of havoc that only six children very close in age with very little parental oversight can create. “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.” When a tragedy strikes, the summers together come to an end, although a few years later, after setting fire to the art room at his school, Albie is sent to live in Virginia.
The story is told in alternating chronology. We learn about the family pasts and their presents, and their changing relationships, mostly, although not exclusively, through Franny’s life story. Fix encourages his daughters to go to law school and Caroline becomes a successful lawyer while Franny drops out of law school and, struggling to find her place, works as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago. “For someone who had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on. Those were her only two criteria at this point: not to be a lawyer and to keep her clothes on.” While working as a cocktail waitress, she meets legendary author Leon Posen and they begin a life together (despite the fact that he is more than 30 years older than Franny and married to someone else).
Franny shares her life story with Posen, who turns it into a National Book Award winning novel and ultimately a movie. Of course the story is modified and interpreted from Posen’s perspective, causing the family to react with horror, shock and offense, mixed with what appears to be indifference . “A film of life would definitely be better than this, even if there had been a camera behind them every minute recording the entire disaster of childhood, all the worst memories preserved, it would still have been better than having to watch these strangers making some half-assed attempt to replicate their lives.” The story makes you stop and wonder what your life might look like from a detached observer’s perspective.
Beverly ultimately divorces Bert and remarries, adding another family to the mix. People age, get married, have children, suffer regret, become ill and die. The characters look back on their lives with a mixture of regret, detachment and resignation. “All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for.” And Teresa, many years after her divorce from Bert muses that “The things you really need are never there when you need them.” The book addresses the thought provoking questions of how the randomness of events influence a life and how to ensure that the experiences of the past become part of the future without losing your own story in the process.
I laughed through the first half of the book and cried through the second. Ann Patchett tells a great story but reminds you that life is as it is and not as you would wish it would be. The book is due to be published in September and I will be buying my own copy. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/mobile/record/C__Rb11213351__SCommonwealth__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=mobile