If public holidays were declared on the release of a new Ann Patchett novel, I’d have been sacked less often. Her latest, Commonwealth, hasn’t helped my productivity any. It’s another masterpiece that might well be her best yet.
Commonwealth is a family saga about the Cousins and the Keatings, who become blended when Bert Cousins leaves his wife, Teresa, and marries Beverly, who’s left her husband, Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating. Between them, there are six children: Beverly’s Caroline and Franny, and Bert’s Calvin, Holly, Jeanette and Albie. Bert, Beverly and her girls move from LA to (the Commonwealth of) Virginia; the four Cousins kids join them on summer holidays. So far so average domestic drama. The genius comes from Patchett’s nonlinear structure, her insight into her characters and the thematic questions she asks. She also leaves plenty to readers’ imaginations.
Franny’s christening party where Bert and Beverly meet is an understated and intricate foundation for everything that befalls the book’s large cast in the decades to come. Beverly is holding baby Franny; Bert kisses her. “He realised then what he had known from the first minute he saw her, from when she leaned out the kitchen door and called for her husband. This was the start of his life.”
Tragedy and joy befall this tribe, alliances are formed and broken, and all this would have been enough for an average novel but in Commonwealth, the story is cracked opened by questions of ownership and betrayal that have echoes in Patchett’s own career. Franny, the character who might represent Patchett herself, is a law school dropout and cocktail waitress who meets and falls for an ageing novelist, her long-time literary hero Leon Posen. During the course of their affair she tells him stories of her family which he then turns into a hugely successful bestseller, called Commonwealth. The scene where her youngest stepbrother, the troubled Albie, confronts this man who has used their secrets is simply stunning.
Posen’s Commonwealth “wasn’t so much about the miserable affair. It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.” Patchett is more compassionate. She knows every cause and every effect, but she blames no one. Commonwealth is a wonderful novel that shines with her wisdom and humanity. LS
Bloomsbury, 336pp, $36.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Ann Patchett, Commonwealth". Subscribe here.