Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 5 December 2016.

It creeps up on you, this novel. It opens in 1964, at a christening party in suburban Los Angeles. Bert Cousins shows up uninvited with a big bottle of gin. The backyard is full of citrus trees groaning with oranges – the mixer. Everyone gets rather loose, and Bert unwisely kisses the hostess, Beverly Keating. It’s an evocative opening, but I was suspicious. It felt like I was being fed the stuff of legends – that party! That gin! Was I really reading one of those “it all started that fateful day” stories? I thought Ann Patchett would be more… subtle.

We skip ahead. Franny Keating is taking her father (known as Fix) to chemotherapy, and he’s telling her about the day Bert Cousins stole his wife at Franny’s christening party. Franny responds by talking fondly of her stepfather Bert. Okay, so that kiss was the start of something. But as soon as we learn this, we learn that Bert and Beverly’s marriage didn’t last either. Maybe this book isn’t actually about that.

We skip back again, to the summers the Keating and Cousins children spent together in Virginia, where Bert and Beverly moved after their marriage. United in their dislike for the parents, and left to their own devices, the six kids make their own fun, drinking gin (yes, gin again), stealing Bert’s gun from the glovebox, and drugging the youngest Cousins child, Albie, with Benadryl to get him off their case. What could possibly go wrong?

Forward again, to 1988. “The endless unsupervised summers of the commonwealth were over.” Franny is working as a waitress at a cocktail bar when she meets Leon Posen. Famous author Leon Posen – a sort of Roth/Updike figure. He’s much older than her and very drunk. He also hasn’t written anything of note for ages. But he’s Leon Posen! She can’t say no to him. She tells him a story from her childhood, about a blended family, a gun, a drugged kid sleeping in a pile of laundry. He turns it into a best-selling novel called Commonwealth.

Forward again. Albie, now an adult and a recovering heroin addict, is given a copy of Commonwealth by the receptionist at a publishing firm he delivers to as a cycle courier. The penny drops. Suddenly I see what Patchett is doing and it’s so… subtle.

“In truth,” as the narrator remarks in a later chapter, “the story didn’t turn out to be such a bad one.” In truth, it’s rather masterful.

It’s not entirely fictional. Patchett  grew up in a blended family that threw two sets of kids together every summer, and has called this book her “autobiographical first novel,” even though it’s her seventh. In 2004, she published a memoir about the death of her friend Lucy Grealy that saw her accused of being a “grief thief” by Lucy’s family. The particular combination of guilt and elation at the success of a book based on the misery of others is one she knows well, and puts into Franny’s words: “Franny had her share of guilt and dread when Commonwealth was published, but still, she would never deny that those were glorious days.”

Patchett writes around the significant events. We think we’re getting them – the christening party, the day the kids take the gun, the night Franny meets Leon Posen – but we’re not. We don’t look directly at the divorce, what happens to the kids, or the moment Franny tells Posen her story. We just see the scenes that precede and follow them, the effect of the ripples across time and on multiple characters.

Life’s like that – moments that seem charged with significance turn out to mean nothing, while it’s not until years later that you realise how some seemingly small decision has changed the course of your life.