by Ann Patchett
Albert Cousins, whose name portends a vague relation, arrives at a Southern California christening party to which he’s not been invited, armed only with a bottle of gin, and before the party’s over, he’s kissed a woman who’s not his wife but the wife of his host Fix Keating, which will result in the dissolution of two marriages, and the collapse of two families into one. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is ripe with things like this: the kind of thing that’s never meant to happen, but whose consequences constitute a life.
It’s in Virginia, the “commonwealth” of the book’s title, that the Cousins and Keating children (totaling six: four girls and two boys) are brought together under one roof for a string of mostly unsupervised summers. There, the children “held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues,” writes Ann Patchett. “They disliked their parents. They hated them.” Over the novel’s span, however, this hate is transfigured by five decades of disappointment, derailment and family tragedy, to become something indistinguishable from love.
“It turns out a novel isn’t the worst place to hide things.”
Commonwealth is in essence a series of short stories, each one a glimpse into the lives of the Cousins-Keating clan, and Patchett is deft at folding sibling histories into these elliptical mini-narratives (so-and-so has a husband now!) (so-and-so is newly divorced!), suggesting peripheral outcomes without losing time to exposition, or sacrificing the book’s formal beauty to expectations of linearity. Too much happens to tell it all, she seems to be saying, but then too much happens in life. It’s the too much-ness that Patchett succeeds in describing.
Although each member of the ten-person family gets his or her due, two siblings emerge as major players: Franny Keating and Albie Cousins. Franny is a voracious reader with no ambitions to become a writer, and Albie is the classic troublemaker: rude, loud and predisposed to pyrotechnics. The former Keating betrays the latter Cousins when she tells her boyfriend, a famous author in search of inspiration, the story of her Virginia upbringing, without suspecting that it will be reconstituted as a novel, and that that novel, also called “Commonwealth,” will be read by the members of the family that inspired it. Albie, being the least-liked and most-shunned of the children, stands to learn from the novel some family secrets that could tip him into oblivion.
Yet Patchett is careful not to make too much of the book within the book. It is at once the kind of thing that’s never meant to happen, and of course it does A few family members never read a single page of it. As Albie tells Franny: “It turns out a novel isn’t the worst place to hide things.” But those who feel violated by the similarities between themselves and their fictional counterparts are later offended by the differences. When “Commonwealth” becomes a movie, Fix Keating, who sits in on an opening day screening, stands up from his wheelchair and shouts “Enough!” at the screen, then topples forward in the aisle. Patchett wisely avoids rendering the scene traumatic, choosing instead to locate the humor in pain. “I’m not one to go sticking up for your mother,” Fix says of the wife who left him five decades earlier, “but I want you to know, she wasn’t the way that woman played her in the movie.”
Given time all manner of perceptions may change, some intractable grudges only appear that way, and it is Patchett’s animation of these changes, through subtle stage directions spanning decades, that makes Commonwealth such a satisfying novel. Understood in relation to yesterday’s tragedy, today’s tragedy isn’t so bad. There is nothing like the terribleness of your wife leaving you, or the terribleness of losing a child. Yet even these things, which were never meant to happen but did happen, shrink next to other terrible things. Like Patchett’s sentences our lives are tragicomic, our memories learning, over time, not to overstate themselves and in some cases choose to be forgotten altogether, so as to make room for others.
Gazing at her father Fix, now 83 and dying of cancer, Franny Keating realizes painfully that “all the stories go with you.” Maybe she means that you lose your father’s stories when your father dies, or that you lose your own stories when you die, but what Patchett seems to mourn in Commonwealth is just how much we lose while we’re still alive. Look at all we fail to hold onto, she says. But then, on cold nights, if we’re lucky, sometimes there comes the miracle of a good memory, a memory of grace to keep warm by.