Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett opens Commonwealth, her seventh novel, with a retelling of the Garden of Eden story relocated to Torrance, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. A plethora of oranges replaces the apple, two snakes tempt each other instead of one snake tempting Eve, and their fall from grace plagues the Cousins and Keats families for the next fifty years.
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, Francis “Fix” Keating and his gorgeous wife, Beverly, celebrate the baptism of Franny, their second daughter. Late in the afternoon, Fix, a cop, opens the door to deputy district attorney Albert Cousins, who had not been invited. Fix admirably overcomes his shock and welcomes Cousins. Rather than a child’s prayer book or other appropriate gift, Cousins presents Fix with an enormous bottle of gin. With Beverly’s decision to serve the gin with orange juice, the sedate baptismal celebration descends into bedlam. Two men squeezing oranges from the Keats’s trees can barely meet the demands of the people crowding around them; other guests dashed home for more oranges and to raid their liquor cabinets. Fix, the only sober person present—the children are also gulping gin and orange juice on the sly—senses that amidst the commotion Bert (Albert) and Beverly “had a code worked out between them.”
Two years later Bert and Beverly, having divorced their spouses and married each other, move to Virginia with Caroline and Franny. Bert, despite the objections of his ex-wife Teresa, wins summer custody of their children Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie. Bert had always adored his children as they slept, but relegated all daytime duties to Teresa. His expectations that Beverly will be as devoted fall flat. Like him, she is narcissistic and oblivious to the children’s emotional needs. When she can’t send them outside to lope “across the hot pavement like a pack of feral dogs,” Beverly hides at movie matinees or in her air-conditioned car. The children are not indifferent to her scorn.
Among the definitions of “commonwealth” is “. . . united by compact or tacit agreement of the people for the common good.” The children may squabble with their siblings, but their hatred of Bert and Beverly unites them into a powerful commonwealth. Caroline, who begs to live with her adored father, rages at Franny and bullies her. The four Cousins squabble incessantly because they resent their lives in California, especially their father forever berating their mother, and because they “are sick of each other.” The children willingly cross familial lines to bully each other, but, despite this discord, they all unite against their parents.
Though many readers prefer linear stories, Patchett’s choice to move back and forth in time lends more insight and intrigue. Fear not, she does not force her reader through a literary labyrinth. The main characters, introduced by Chapter 4, are initially difficult to track because of the family divisions, but they sort themselves out as their distinctive story lines unfold. As perspectives change, we are never in doubt about which character is taking the stage. The secondary characters are equally distinctive, especially Fodé, a dear man who enters the narrative through his relationship with one of the daughters.
A nonlinear structure leads to better character insight. A looming question is why Teresa, mostly a sympathetic character and admirable woman, married the loathsome Bert. Knowing what we do about him when she recalls their meeting very late in the story, makes Teresa’s story all the more poignant.
A good novel resolves every conflict, but a very good novel includes conflicts with a universal theme for which no pat answers exist. In this sense, Patchett does send us through a labyrinth. Just when the reader thinks an answer has fallen into place for a senseless family tragedy, the responsibility of a negligent parent—who until this point has been a sympathetic character—comes to light and changes the picture.
Through Franny, Patchett ponders the age old conflict of a family member’s responsibility when sharing stories, especially when the information will be published.
Working as a cocktail waitress in Chicago’s tony Palmer House, Franny meets Leon Posner, a writer she reveres. Their five-year affair is as much a mutual admiration society as it is a romantic involvement. Franny is so smitten with Leon “that she could say his name . . . like she was saying Anton Chekhov and find him in bed beside her.” Posner, a dedicated alcoholic who hasn’t produced a book, bestseller or otherwise, in twelve years, views Franny as “the cable on which he . . . pulled himself hand over hand back into his work.” Flattered to be a muse at the master’s feet, Franny glibly shares her family’s stories.
Posner’s book, entitled Commonwealth, returns him to the highest realm of literary glory when short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Franny, at Leon’s side, relishes his celebrations with famous literary figures, but her euphoria abruptly ends when the person most devastated by the book appears at her door to ask, “Did you think I was never going to see it?”
Finally, the nonlinear narrative offers encouraging glimpses of hope in a story portraying human nature’s darkest aspects. Even when the perspective is not Bert’s or Beverly’s, their treachery overshadows the characters, especially Teresa and Fix as they rebuild their lives. Teresa struggles to support her family as a paralegal. As for her summers alone, she misses her children, but ever practical she “decides that she’s been handed the divorce equivalent of a Caribbean vacation.” As a cop, Fix has only two weeks of summer vacation to spend with Caroline and Franny. When he cries as they leave every summer, Caroline’s hatred for Beverly escalates, and Franny, who has never hated Beverly, comes “that much closer to figuring it out.”
The story’s closing circles back to two main characters introduced in the first chapter. Instead of California’s sunny climes, they reunite at Christmas time in Virginia’s frigid temperatures and snow. In contrast to the book’s first scene, symbolizing familial hell, the final scene, symbolizing peace and goodwill, validates the glimpses of hope throughout the book. As the children mature, they release much of the resentment that governed their commonwealth.
Ann Patchett is the author of the novels The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, and State of Wonder, three books of nonfiction, and the essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. She was the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006. She has won numerous prizes, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. Along with James Patterson, she was the honorary chair of World Book Night. Patchett, in 2012, was designated by Time magazine as one of the most 100 influential People in the World. Visit her website at annpatchett.com