Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
by Robert A. Parker
If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.
Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.
I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.
This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.
And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?
But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.
My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.
In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.
One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.
There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.
It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.
I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)