Family ties and life journeys
“Commonwealth” begins with a party celebrating the christening of baby Franny, the second daughter of policeman Fix Keating. It ends with another party, some 50 years later, as Fanny, with her husband and children, returns to her mother’s house in time for an annual Christmas party. In the intervening years, there have been multiple changes in what appear at first to be ordinary, middle-class family lives.
“Commonwealth,” however, is far from ordinary, and there is nothing banal or simple about Ann Patchett’s characters. Miss Patchett not only has a gift for writing, but her engrossing tale is filled with unexplained events, suggested trauma and unfulfilled dreams. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. At times, the thread of the story is difficult to follow as it jumps back and forth in time and from place to place. The structure is much like human memory, which is neither consequential nor consistent, but retains vivid moments.
The novel raises questions of parent-child relationships, the bond between siblings whether related by blood or marriage, role reversals, searches for identity, moments of sadness and joy, and of the nature of growing up, but it does so without judgment and with considerable satirical overtones. The reader cares about Ms. Patchett’s characters, even the less likable ones.
It is at Franny’s christening party that the action is set in motion when Franny’s mother, the beautiful Beverly, meets deputy district attorney Bert Cousins who “kissed [Beverly] until the spark he had felt in his fingers when he touched her hand in the kitchen ran the entire shivering length of his spine.”
In the next chapter, Franny is grown and taking her father to chemotherapy. We know that Beverly married Bert and moved to Virginia; of their affair prior to marriage we know nothing. Bert’s wife, Teresa, had her fourth child, Albie (short for Albert) shortly after the christening party. She remained in Los Angeles, and eventually qualified for a job in her ex-husband’s office.
Every summer the four Cousins children — Cal, Holly, Jeannette and Albie — flew to Virginia to spend the summer with their father, Beverly and Beverly’s daughters, Caroline and Franny. “In Virginia, the six children had shared the two bedrooms and a single cat, picked food from one another’s plates and indiscriminately used the same bath towels, but in California everything was separate. “
The children spent their Virginia summers exploring without parental supervision. Both Bert and Kix wanted Franny and her older sister, Caroline, to go to law school. The girls “showed no skills at debate, though their energy for screaming at one another was limitless. But then again it wasn’t about what either man had seen in Caroline or Franny. It was about what each had seen in himself.”
Caroline “cared abut the law and tennis and her grades in classes she didn’t even like. She cared what their father said about their mother, what he said about everything. Franny just wanted to . . . read Agatha Christie.” Caroline did everything better than Franny, but “in all the world the one thing Franny was better at than Caroline . . . She could shoot a gun.” Fix had taught his daughters to shoot and to pry open locked car doors.
Caroline became a successful lawyer. Franny dropped out of law school and worked as a cocktail waitress in the Palmer House in Chicago where she met writer Leo Posen, who was charmed that she had read his work.
Their love affair lasted several years; we are not told how or why it ended.
In the course of their relationship, Franny entertained Leo by telling him about her dysfunctional family, information he turned into a successful novel called “Commonwealth,” which, in turn, was made into a movie. “But seeing the movie now would bring back more than just [Fanny’s] betrayal of her family. The movie also spoke to the failure of her long ago relationship and the lonely death of the man she had loved . . . . ”
Franny married an old friend, now a widower with two small boys. Cal died as the result of a bee sting; Holly moved to Switzerland, cut her hair and joined a cult; Jeannette, the quiet one, married an African, had a baby and worked as a field service engineer. Albie, the enfant terrible, found his niche with his sisters’ help. Beverly and Bert divorced and she remarried several times thereafter.
There are lyrical moments, as when Franny is riding a bus through Iowa to join Leo: “She’d watched all of those endless snowy fields poked through with a hundred thousand broken stalks of corn, and the long shadows those stubbed cornstalks threw across the snow in the late-afternoon light. Field after field after field, and not an inch of space wasted on something as decorative and meaningless as a tree . . . . She could feel her own brittleness as the frozen air did battle with her coat.”
There are delicious satirical sections. For example, Miss Patchett takes on the publishing business in the account of the stream of dinner and overnight guests from Leo’s publishing world who arrive for freebies at the house Leo and Franny rent for a summer in Amagansett.
“Commonwealth” is not a saga, but rather, a succession of vignettes making up the life journeys taken by the Fix and Cousins children, with Franny as the main focal point. It is a fine mix of storytelling, satire, compassion and humor.