Commonwealth: Family Drama

CommonwealthAt 52, Ann Patchett presents her very first autobiographical novel, Commonwealth. It starts with an interesting premise: LA District Attorney Bert Cousins needs a break from his three children and pregnant wife. He grabs a bottle of gin and crashes the christening ceremony that Fix Keating, LA police officer, is hosting for his second daughter, Franny. It’s there that Bert meets Beverly Keating, Fix’s beautiful wife. In Franny’s room, the two adults share a kiss. What follows is a divorce, a marriage, the blending of six children—Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie (Bert’s) with Caroline and Franny (Beverly’s)—and the defining trials and tribulations the Cousins/Keating Family experiences, mostly in California and Virginia.

Lara: I think it’s safe to assume that we are both going to read whatever Ann Patchett produces, am I right?

Jennifer: Yes, we are. I haven’t read as many of her books as you have (I think I’ve read five), and there is no doubt that she’s a fine, fine writer. I know that neither of us is eager to give her a negative book review. But this isn’t her finest.

There goes that blurb on the back of my next novel that I asked her to write!

Ann, I still love you! May I please do a reading at your bookstore?

Parnassus Parnassus Parnassus Parnassus Parnassus Parnassus Parnassus!

Lara: I would like to think our gal Ann can take some respectful criticism. Here’s the thing. There’s a lot about this book that I really like, love even.

Patchett is truly in her element when she is writing about people thrust together by circumstance.

“When the six of them got together they looked more like a day camp than a family, random children dropped off on the same curb,” Patchett writes. “There was very little evidence of their relation, even among those who were related by blood.”

The Cousins and Keating children form an accommodating alliance replete with the normal sibling rivalries, admiration, complaints, and drama. They were a perfect patchwork.

Their glue cracks the summer of Cal’s death at the age of fifteen. As adults, they scatter from one another. They become more estranged after Franny’s lover, novelist Leo Posen, wins the National Book Award for his book Commonwealth, which is about them. They are brought back together, mainly through visits and phone calls when tending to two of their ailing parents.

It’s a great story. But it’s safe. Patchett scratches the surface of the issues of infidelity, secret-keeping, betrayal, guilt, and loss without giving them each the meat they deserve. Her character development is solid, and I loved hating Bert, was as exasperated as Theresa and Beverly, and rooted for Franny and Albie. I wanted more. Or maybe I wanted less. Fewer characters with more story depth. I wanted her to push it more.

Jennifer: I guess I kept waiting for it to get there, wherever there might be. I think I was waiting for the novel to arrive somewhere, and it never did. I truly felt as if I were waiting for some critical ball to drop the whole time, even up until the last page.

I didn’t hate Bert, by the way. I was never fully engaged with any of them, frankly. I spent the whole novel almost there.

“For Bert the past was always right there with him, and so he assumed that everyone else felt the same way.”

Compelling line. Not much unfolds before it or from it.

You were looking at an interesting NPR piece, in which Patchett discusses her own writing trajectory, having only now gone towards the autobiographical. She says,

“But the wonderful thing about publishing this book at 52 is that I know that I am capable of working from a place of deep imagination.”

Deep Imagination. Like the very fictionalized Bel Canto or State of Wonder. I think, though, that is where her amazing talent resides: in the deep imagination. That’s enviable to me. Really enviable.

I wish I wrote more from that place.

Lara: I totally understand the feeling that you were waiting. But I think she did get there—in some instances—and it was a let down. Like how Cal died. There was this build up for much of the book that had you certain on the cause of death and it ended up being something different. That felt less like a twist and more like a tease.

Jennifer: Yeah, I think there were numerous, subtle disappointments, though I do hate calling them disappointments. There are a handful of characters that were introduced, given a moment of airtime and then nothing more, like Beverly’s sister Bonnie, who ends up married to a priest. Franny’s author-lover, Leo Posen, supposedly writes this novel Commonwealth that turns the family upside-down. But it really doesn’t. There’s the promise of scandal:

“I still don’t understand this,” Albie said, pointing at Franny and then at Leo. “How did he wind up with my life?”

“It isn’t your life,” Leo said. “That’s what I’m trying to explain. It’s my imagination.”

I want more. What is this writerly ownership, this usurping of lives?

Marriages disintegrate. We do not feel the pain.

Well, what I might say that I liked best is the idea of it: the unfolding (in a sort of epic way) of the lengthy development of family—a family forged out of sutures, if you will, out of ruptures. I liked the idea of it.

I also liked Fix. He was interesting (though his demise and his final request to Franny is another example of “disappointment”). There’s some good cancer stuff:

“She was shocked by how bad he looked. Cancer really was the devil’s handshake.”

Lara: Oh, I totally disagree with you on Fix’s last request being a disappointment. I thought it was totally within his character and I am glad that Franny stuck by her guns, so to speak.

Jennifer: Speaking of guns, which come up a lot in this book… but not in the ways one might expect… I would’ve liked to hear more on the lives of Los Angeles law enforcement types.

What is good about this book?

Lara: I think Fix, Teresa, Albie, and Franny are great about this book.

Albie was always the afterthought. He’s the baby no one worried about, the one who the siblings fed Benadryl to so that he would chill out, the child who became a full-fledged teenage arsonist, a heroin addict, and then a father. The one no one worried about who became the worrier.

Jennifer: Yes. I could’ve used more, even there. Too many unrealized parts.

Lara: I think Franny was my favorite. She attempted law school and dropped out. I considered attempting law school and realized I would rather play a lawyer on TV than actually be one. She loved books and reading as much as I do. One of my favorite passages is an interaction between her and Leo:

“Did you ever want to be a writer?”

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. “I only wanted to be a reader.”

Franny was also the most present. There weren’t many ties that bound the characters, but Franny was the constant.

Jennifer: The book does have this kind of sweeping feel to it, as if vast terrain is covered. To what end, I’m not sure. What did you get out of this novel?

Lara: That families, blended or otherwise, are complicated. That people, and parents in particular, are not perfect. I realize, in my own life, for example, that my son is at the age of being able to more closely see my imperfections. None of this is revelatory, but it’s more comforting and can connect us.

Jennifer: Is this the “message,” if you will?

“Life, Teresa knew by now, was a series of losses. It was other things too, better things, but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself.”

Lara: I think that could be it. It’s good, regardless, and pretty accurate.

Jennifer: Eh. At any rate, I’m still trying to figure out the significance of the title. Commonwealth? Why? A state. It didn’t achieve any kind of full metaphoric value for me, and I really did try.

Lara: Me too. And I don’t know the answer either. We still love you, Ann. Always and forever.

Next Up!

We are finishing out the year with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. 

See you next month!


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