Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Allen & Unwin.
It’s a stinking hot day in Southern California in the 1960s and a backyard christening is about to get unruly thanks to the introduction of a large bottle of gin and fresh orange juice squeezed from fruit hand-plucked from the surrounding trees and hand-juiced in the Keatings’ kitchen. The gin was an unconventional gift from an uninvited guest, lawyer Bert Cousins, whose introduction into the world of local cop Fix Keating and his wife, the beauteous Beverly, proves seismic.
Once the gin is drained, neighbours rush home to contribute more bottles of hard liquor and the sedate celebration of baby Frances’ arrival turns into a raucous shindig. Bert, a married father of three with a fourth on the way, is blown away by the stunning Beverly and resolves that this is “the start of his life” as the pair share a drunken kiss while his pregnant wife, Teresa, waits at home.
Jump forward and Bert and Beverly are now married and living in Virginia. Their blended family of six kids trail around in their wake, parcels to be shipped from California to Virginia, each battling with which parent they should side with.
Jump forward again and baby Franny is all grown up and seduced by a famous novelist, to whom she confides tales from her disjointed childhood, including a terrible fatal accident. Of course, her life story seeps into a supposedly fictional novel with its own ramifications. Indeed, Commonwealth is all about consequences.
Author Ann Patchett is a supremely accomplished storyteller with characters that bristle with veracity and situations described so vividly they have a filmic quality. The scenes of Fix receiving his dose of chemo and recounting tales from his days on the beat to dutiful Franny, seated by his side, have a rich, soulful quality that stays with you.
The rebellion and feeling of disconnectedness in the offspring of these two families is also palpable and inspired by Patchett’s own childhood as the daughter of divorced parents. “I wanted to show the long-term repercussions of a decision, how it ripples out to so many people over such a long period of time,” she says.
This she certainly achieves, but also more than that; there is humour and joy amid the heartbreak, and beautifully crafted surprises that keep you guessing.
I wanted to show the long-term repercussions of a decision, how it ripples out to so many people over such a long time.