Book review: Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’ a realistic view of family
May 18, 2017
“Commonwealth,” by Ann Patchett
I am a fan of great writing, and Ann Patchett's “Commonwealth” is the epitome of that. Her fans who have read “The Magician's Assistant,” “Bel Canto” or “Truth and Beauty” will not be surprised. In fact, with “Commonwealth,” they might find Patchett to be at her best.
Patchett opens the novel with the line, "The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin," and immediately draws her audience into the Cousins and Keating family saga. This kindred chronicle spans more than 50 years, from the early 1960s until today. Like "Bel Canto," the best-known of Patchett's six earlier novels, "Commonwealth" starts with an unanticipated kiss at a party. The lives and marriages of both families are forever altered the day Albert brings alcohol to the gathering and kisses the wife of Fix Keating.
This first chapter is possibly the best novel opening I have ever read. The tension is palpable, and the scene, in a 1960s Los Angeles, is impeccably set by the wordsmith Patchett.
After their subsequent divorces and remarriages to each other, Betty Cousins (nee Keating) and Albert blend their six children every summer at their family home in Virginia. They become a tribe of their own, bound by their mutual disdain for (depending on the child) either Betty or Albert. They are children and act like children under the negligent eyes of their parents. Guns, gin and galavanting are the alliterative themes of the hot summers spent together in Virginia.
“Commonwealth” quickly evolves into a story less about the parents and more about the children. Fortunately, this is where the most interesting plot lines lie. Death, lies and more bad behavior follow the children of this blended family into their own adulthoods. The impact of the day Albert brought the gin reverberates like butterfly wings throughout the lives of their descendants.
Time moves non-linearly in “Commonwealth. The present, where a movie-based-on-a-book-based-on-their-lives is currently showing in theaters across the country, evokes hazy memories and near-visual hallucinations of the past five decades. The deviating timeline can be confusing, at times, but ultimately lends itself to deeper insight into one particular summer during which an unspeakable event happens. As it turns out, it is this event, which involves only the children and not the amalgamation of families, that ultimately decides the fate of the rest of their lives.
Patchett weaves a beautifully deep, yet complicated story. She captures the essence of family, one that is dynamic, dependent and demanding. Her characters are not fantastical, the storyline is believable and each character is intended to remind readers a little bit of their own family, or, mores o, who they call family and why.
The hardcover edition of “Commonwealth” held it's ground on bestseller lists everywhere and has recently been released as a paperback. It is once again available on our bestsellers table at Off The Beaten Path. If you enjoyed this book, you may also enjoy Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” “The Patron Saint of Liars” and “Run.”
Victoria Ohegyi is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.