In an age when the term ‘helicopter parent’ has made its way into the popular lexicon, the two sets of parents in Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, are the direct opposites. Their benign neglect of their children and step-children lead to many consequence, and one fatality. The parents’ lack of supervision and care forces the children and step-children to organize their own hierarchy, which results in the formation of bonds that last for decades.
This is just one of the contradictions of this powerful story. Patchett had me with the opening line of the novel: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” This line raises so many interesting questions. What kind of a turn did the party take? Who is Albert Cousins? Who was christened? Why does it matter? The baby as it turned out, was Franny Keating, the closest thing to a protagonist in this family saga.
Patchett expertly balances the many point-of-view characters in this blended family, recounting major events from a variety of viewpoints. She also seamlessly moves back and forward in time without harming the narrative flow.
The story begins when Albert “Bert” Cousins, a Los Angeles Deputy DA crashes the christening party after his co-worker, Dick Spencer, mentioned it at work. Cousins decided to attend so he could get away for a few hours from his pregnant wife and three young children. He didn’t have a gift so he showed up with a bottle of gin. Francis X. “Fix” Keating, Franny’s dad, is an LA cop. He lets Cousins into the house. Cousins spots Beverly, Keating’s attractive wife, and is immediately smitten. A brief kiss at the party sets into motion the destruction of both marriages.
The Keatings’ two children and the Cousins’ four children spend each summer together in Virginia, where Cousins and Beverly move. The two sets of children don’t like each other or the situation they are thrust into, but they are forced to deal with it.
During one summer the parents sleep in at a vacation in a motel. The kids, left on their own, break into the parents’ car and steal a gun and a bottle of gin from the glove compartment. Then they walk two miles to a nearby lake. When they return after having finished off the gin, their parents are none the wiser. The fragile camaraderie in this blended family will grow stronger over the years.
One of the strengths of the story is the multiple points of view. Each character possesses his or her own version of the past and the tragic death of Calvin Cousins as a teen-ager is told through the eyes of several of the characters, each with a unique recollection as to how it happened.
The event that unites the siblings is a novel called, Commonwealth, written by author Leon Posen, who has an affair with Franny. During their affair, Franny confides her family history to the author, who is struggling to come up with a new novel. Posen uses the story of the Keating-Cousins as the plot of a bestselling novel. The siblings bristle at the author’s version of their story, an insight which suggests the view that a family’s history belongs to the family alone.
This is a satisfying story from one of today’s leading authors.