Fam­ily ties and life jour­neys

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Ann Patch­ett By Corinna Lothar Corinna Lothar is a Wash­ing­ton writer and critic.

“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.

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