Sunday, April 17, 2022

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


About six years ago, I saw an interview with Ann Patchett about this book, and decided to put it on my list. 

Apparently, Commonwealth is not her usual sort of book - not much happens, and what does is really just normal life. There are no big dramatic moments, no showdowns, no blowups. More than anything, the characters find their way through life with resilience and adaptation. 


The book doesn’t have a plot arc, but rather is episodic, jumping back and forth across five decades, two continents, and a variety of settings. But, unless you count a zen retreat as exotic, none of the settings are particularly dramatic. Even the most tragic events are mundane. The death of the one child, for example, comes not (as the reader expects) from the gun he “borrows” from his dad, but from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. (I hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler.) There are no villains, and honestly, even the least likeable characters in the book are pretty dang likeable. Okay, except for the old racist retired car salesman, but he was also clearly going senile. These are ordinary humans of the sort we all have in our families. There are no dark secrets to be revealed, although there is a sort-of-secret the kids keep. 


The central event of the book is an affair that leads to the breakup of two marriages and the formation of a blended family. 


And that part of the book is somewhat autobiographical, although not necessarily the affair. As Patchett said about the book, “The vast majority of the things that happened in Commonwealth did not happen to me. The vast majority of the emotions the characters feel in Commonwealth did happen to me. Or, as my mother would say, “None of it happened, and all of it is true.””


The book is told in both a non-linear way, and in an episodic manner. More or less, we progress from the childhood of the children to the aging and death of the parents - well into their 80s, and for mundane reasons. But we also get some key moments from the middle early to give us an idea about what the important events will be. It’s not my favorite way of storytelling, but it is definitely the way most literary fiction seems to be written for the last 30 or so years. It works in this book. 


I don’t want to give away all of the plot, but here is the outline of the important stuff. Bert Cousins, a deputy district attorney, trying to get away from the unglamorous reality of his life with three-and-a-half small children and a wife who resents his lack of participation in their lives, crashes a party. Well, it isn’t exactly a party, but the christening of Franny Keating, infant daughter of Francis Xavier “Fix” Keating, a local cop, and his wife Beverly. In a rather amusing sequence, the gin that Bert brings as a gift ends up triggering a bit of a boozy blowout, during which Bert kisses Beverly, setting in motion the breakup of both marriages. 


Thus, the four Cousins kids; Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie; end up in a blended family with the Keating kids; Caroline and Franny. They spend summers together until Cal’s tragic and untimely death. But even afterward, the five other children remain bonded, and become, in their own ways, closer as time goes on. Some of this is based on their mutual disappointment in their parents. I wouldn’t say “hate” applies here, because this book really doesn’t have that much hate, and in any case, the hate that some of the children feel for their parents when young mellows as time goes on. The exes may start out hating, but this too mellows, and even later, when subsequent marriages have splintered, the connection remains. “Ex-stepsibling” is still a sibling. 


The other central event happens when Franny, then working as a cocktail waitress, meets her idol, novelist Leon Posen. She has a love affair with him for half a decade, and tells him about her childhood. This breaks his writer’s block, and he has his last big hit (the book named, of course, Commonwealth) with what is essentially a retold version of her own life. When this is discovered by the other kids, there is some understandable anger and feelings of betrayal. Particularly by Albie, the youngest, who learns for the first time that his older siblings used to drug him with benadryl so they could go play without him. (To be fair, Albie is seriously annoying, even by the standards of younger siblings.) 


Leon Posen is mostly based on Saul Bellow, who was married five times, and had a bit of a reputation in that regard. Posen is a bit annoying at times. I mean, taking up with Franny who is half his age is kind of on brand, but still. She is, however, 29 at the time, so hardly a predatory relationship. He also drinks a good bit. But again, for the time in which the book is set, not unusual. Plenty of the old guard of attorneys when I first began my practice still talked with nostalgia about the three-martini lunches. So even Posen is, if not exactly loveable, feels real and human and quite relatable in his own way. 


But the other part of Posen is based on Ann Patchett herself. After all, she is the well-known author who put her family into her stories. Which raises the question - and believe me, Patchett raises it in this book - as to who owns stories anyway? I admit, as a blogger, I think about this a lot. My relationships with some of my family have, over my lifetime, ranged from difficult to non-existent. And many of the stories about myself, of course, involve them. For example, there is that time John Thompson tried to recruit me to marry his daughter. Key roles in that story were played by my parents and siblings. And one was furious that I was going to write about it at all. They believed that they owned that story, not me. Even though it was my future that was at stake. (Unfortunately, that was not the only time that my love life was treated as a pawn in the game of family dynamics - it eventually became a pattern. But that is a different story.) So Patchett is really both Franny AND Leon Posen. Which, as she said, made writing the sex scenes a bit weird. 


The interesting part about this is that apparently Patchett’s siblings (including step-siblings she is still close with) are fully on board with this book, and were happy to be written about. The book is also dedicated to her stepfather, who was a huge support to her throughout her life. I mean, as heartwarming as the relationships are in the book, in real life they seem enviable. 


There are plenty of other things I could talk about. A good portion of the book is set in Los Angeles, and clearly Patchett remembers a lot of things about the city, even though she, like Franny, moved to the Southeast at age six. So many details were spot on. The orange trees in everyone’s yard - usually the juicing Valencia variety, not Navels. (Oh hell yes, we had a pair of trees, and had orange juice all summer long.) The old school sorts using the Thomas Guide - I still have one! - rather than GPS, even after the tech took over. Most of us knowing how to avoid the freeway during rush hour and take the quickest side streets. The way that those of us who learned to drive there just know our way around in a way that seems like black magic to relatives from out of town. The difficulty finding parking at Santa Monica Beach if you didn’t get there early. (That was my beach more often than not as a kid.) Just details like that. And, since both Patchett and I had relatives with LAPD, those details seem so vibrant as well. 


I can’t comment on how well she does Chicago or Brooklyn or the Swiss Alps, but I suspect she does Virginia pretty well, as that part mirrors her own life. 


I also want to mention that she deliberately violates Chekhov’s Rule. (Aka, “Chekhov’s Gun.”) That gun (guns, actually) is in the narrative, setting up the expectation that it will be fired. It never is. Even though guns play some crucial roles in the plot, it is never because they are fired, but because the characters have to figure out what to do with them. (It would take too long to explain, but the book handles these in a fascinating manner.) 


I found this book rather different from other ones I have read, and in a good way. It just feels real. I don’t know a better way to put it. 


The audiobook was narrated by Hope Davis, who did a good job of keeping the voices of the characters distinct. That’s not easy when most of them are related - and children who then become adults. 




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