“The christening took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.Fix was smiling when he opened the door and he kept smiling as he struggled to make the connection: it was Albert Cousins from the district attorney’s office standing on the cement slab of his front porch.”
It’s the early 1960s in a suburb of Los Angeles. Bert Cousins is accidentally invited to Fix Keating’s christening party for his daughter Franny. One bottle of gin later, the afternoon party is veering out of control. Father Joe Mike contemplates the beauty of his host’s sister; the women have kicked off their heels and ruined their stockings; Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating share an illicit kiss; and Fix Keating is wondering how Cousins got invited to his house in the first place. Marriages are broken, and the Cousins and Keating families are inevitably intertwined. Commonwealth shows Ann Patchett’s talent for exposing the extraordinary in everyday lives—revealing how off-hand accidents can have long-range, life-changing consequences.
Commonwealth deftly shifts between the past and the present, jumping from Franny’s christening in 1960, to 1970s Virginia summers ruled by the cruel pack mentality of childhood, to Fix Keating dying of cancer in Santa Monica, and Franny’s evenings serving cocktails to sharp dressed men.
While the image of five children running wild in summertime verges on idyllic, the reality of these Virginia summers carried heavy undertones. Beverly, uninterested in caring for so many children, tries to hide away. Bert reverts to the behavior during his first marriage, and hightails it to his office whenever he has the chance. Cal keeps his father’s loaded pistol tied to his leg under his jeans, and the children drug their little brother Albie with Benedryl to stop him from spoiling their fun. The culmination of their neglect forms the core mystery of the novel.
Franny, easily one of my favorite characters, is incredibly relatable for many Millenials. Following pressure from her father and stepfather, she enrolls in law school only to discover she hates everything about law. A few years and hundreds of thousands of debt later, Franny finds herself sleeping on a friend’s couch, and waitressing in a plush hotel bar:
“She had racked up an enormous debt predicated on the salary of the partnership she would never obtain. For someone who had no skills and no idea of what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on.”
It’s here that she meets Leon Posen, a literary genius gone to seed. A casual conversation turns into a powerful connection. Her childhood becomes fodder for a novel entitled Commonwealth, his supposedly fictitious comeback novel. The plot follows a band of stepchildren who spend their summers unsupervised, until a dramatic accident changes everything. Posen’s novel is an immediate, widespread hit, bringing the Cousins and Keating tribes back into each other’s lives, some demanding how their private lives and sorrows became casual entertainment for the masses. I found myself questioning whether we have ownership of our own stories. If our lives are full of shared experiences, who hold the title?
This emphasis on shared experiences is further cemented in Patchett’s repetition of the word commonwealth. As both the title of the novel, and the fictional book that brings the families back together, the word lends a certain significance. There’s an immediate tie to American idealism in Patchett’s choice of setting: Virginia, one of the original commonwealth states, and California, sunny land of the American Dream. The word conjures optimism—providing for the collective benefit—but I found this reference even more powerful as Patchett reveals how the Keating and Cousins families are tied together in both their success and failure.
This look at the long-range patterns of an accidental intersection of lives is incredibly compelling, even as it chronicles ordinary lives: divorces, marriages, infidelities, remarriages, careers, uncertainty, cancer, moves, expectations defied. Commonwealth examines shared history and shared burdens in depth, looking closely at consequence, connection, and our impact on each other’s lives.