Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: A review
I felt some uneasiness at the beginning of this book. I wasn't particularly liking the characters I was meeting and I wasn't sure just where Ann Patchett was taking me with them. Of course, I shouldn't have worried.
Patchett starts with characters that are perhaps not so lovable, and she reveals them to us incrementally, bit by bit, layer by layer, and as more layers of their humanity are laid bare, a remarkable thing happens. We find that the characters are relatable and even likable. We know these people. They are our neighbors, our family, our friends, ourselves. We end up caring deeply about them and hoping against hope that things will turn out well for them on their complicated journeys through life.
The story begins with an uninvited guest at a christening party. The birth of Franny Keating, the second daughter of Beverly and Fix Keating, is being celebrated. Fix is a cop with the LAPD and most of the guests are cops and their wives.
But then a lawyer with the DA's office, Bert Cousins, arrives. He wasn't invited and only knows Fix slightly. The party had been mentioned to him by one of the invited guests and he decided on his own to just show up. It is a fateful decision that will ultimately change the course of ten lives; two families, six children and two married couples.
On that sunny Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins meets Beverly Keating and is instantly attracted to her. Before the day is out, he has kissed her and things will never be the same again.
Ultimately, the two marriages break up. Bert marries Beverly and they move to Virginia with Beverly's two daughters. Bert's four children stay in California with their mother, even though he tries to convince her that she, too, should move to Virginia.
Over the years, the children make cross-country flights in summer to visit their non-custodial parents, and the Keating and Cousins children form their own lasting familial bond. They have a genuine affection for each other that was at first based on their mutual disappointment with their parents but that grew into something real and strong.
Then one summer day in Virginia, something terrible happens to the children, something that will haunt them and their parents for the rest of their lives.
Many years later, Franny is living in Chicago and working part-time as a waitress. She meets Leon Posen, a famous author whom she admires but who has not written a book in many years. She begins an affair with him and eventually tells him the story of her family. He turns the family story into a best-selling novel and the family tragedy is revealed to the world.
In the end, Patchett's archeological digging through the lives of her characters works brilliantly. All is revealed, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos, but always with a tender understanding of the ties that bind us in families and circles of caring. Her book is a wonderful meditation on all of that. I was sorry to see it end.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars