Ann Patchett, in Commonwealth has captured the lives of six children whose families have been splintered by the love affairs of their parents. She does so with humor and compassion and her always compelling grasp of storytelling and language.
Bert Cousins, father of three (soon to be four), shows up uninvited at the christening of Beverly Keating’s second daughter with a bottle of vodka. The Keating’s tree provides an unending supply of oranges, transforming the party, shifting the attention from the infant to the adults. Bert ends up kissing Beverly, setting in motion the dissolution of two families.
The scene then shifts to the adulthood of the newborn, Franny Keating, who is keeping her father company during his chemotherapy treatment and trying to piece together her past. The chapters that follow shift both in time and in point of view, moving from one life to another, slowly binding together the six offspring who spend most of the year with their respective mothers, but run wild together in the summers.
Patchett’s unerring grip on character, with all of its oddities plus the mixture of humor and pain keep the reader engrossed. Franny and the Cousins’ youngest, Albie, emerge as the central characters, gradually revealing the secrets of those summers, while in the background their parents’ attention is largely elsewhere.
It has taken me a long time to decide how I feel about this book. It is an engrossing read, but the shifting chronology left me with a sense of jumbled lives without a center. I’ve now decided that effect is deliberate. This is a story of the commonwealth, of the fragility of adult-centered relationships and of children set adrift half-formed and without grounding. That they emerge, finally, gives the tale its redemptive value, but the book should shake up any complacency about the new norms of family we’ve accepted.