Two families. Six children. A small neighbourhood. A hot summer night and a party. A novel that starts with the line, “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”
That summer night and the party fuelled by gin (plenty of it) turns out to be a turning point in the lives of these two families. Albert Cousins kisses the host’s wife, Beverly Keating, and sets in motion a love affair. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth traces the trajectory of this affair as it tears apart the families, and the children end up traveling from one set of the broken family to the other, newer, one.
Patchett’s writing is, as always, in equal parts honest and compassionate. Keating’s emotions in having to cope with six children, two of her own and four from her husband’s previous marriage, are expressed in brutal clarity, “There was no place to go, no place to get away from them…She thought about the fact that if she were in the garage rather than the carport, she’d be killing herself right now.”
The six children are held together with a common bond, “…they disliked the parents. They hated them.” As they are forced to endure living together, the children form their own cliques. They learn to get away on their own, “they did things, real things, and they never got caught”. The parents, grappling with the havoc and splinters in their lives, are blissfully unaware of the escapades of the children until a tragic incident occurs and binds them all in a circle of guilt and deception.
Years later, Franny, the pretty baby whose christening party sets off the story, tells the story of her family to a famous novelist. The novelist, Leon Posen, grappling with middle age, writer’s block and alimony, includes both Franny and her story into his life. Franny’s story becomes his best-selling novel, also called Commonwealth, and the story then takes a back-and-forth approach, offering glimpses of each family member’s life and how they come to terms with this “betrayal,” as well as the one from their united past.
Patchett shows the same mastery over details and zooming back and forth between time periods as in her other novels. But while her previous novel State of Wonder featured scientists, including an Indian-origin woman, trying to find the cure for post-menopausal infertility and was set in the impenetrable Amazonian rainforest, this novel is focused on a smaller, almost ordinary scale. Most of the scenes are set within two states, California and Virginia, where the two branches of the extended family live. And her writing is a masterclass of showing rather than telling.
In the vivid but subtle detailing of the inner lives of families and the specks of bitterness and humour that can coexist in the most mundane of situations, Patchett joins the league of writers like Anne Tyler. Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet, for instance, also describes a broken marriage and the emotional journey of the central character, Barnaby Gaitlin, as the family black sheep who is trying to grow into a mature, responsible man. Barnaby wonders, “Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don’t they every feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? Isn’t it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people?”
As if in answer to that question, each character finds a measure of redemption in Commonwealth. The problem, as one of the characters says, is, “People are scared of the wrong things.” The truth is that the real story is that of time and how, eventually, wisdom and kindness win. And so, in the end, there is always hope, as shown by the arc of the lives of each of the six children. As one of the mothers says, “We have good children…After all the trouble they gave us they turned out okay.” Even the neighbourhood where the story originates, Torrance, is described as, “In truth, the story didn’t turn out to be such a bad one.”
In her collection of personal essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett mentioned how she started writing at the age of six, triggered by the divorce of her parents and by having to grapple with moving from one set of parents to the other. The similarity of details between the characters in Commonwealth and those described in her life are striking. One doesn’t know how much of this novel is autobiographical, but the fact remains that she could overcome such a painful childhood and turn bits of it into a whole story. And the fact that the story is full of wit and empathy makes one want to say that in the end, truly, it turned out to be a good one.
Jonaki Ray is a writer and editor based in Delhi. Her work has been published in India and abroad in various literary journals, and in spring 2016 she was a writer in residence at Joya: AiR, an inter-disciplinary residency programme in Spain.