In “Commonwealth,” novelist Ann Patchett tells a story of an affair, two broken marriages, and the legacy of the breakup for both parents and children. Patchett appears Monday, Sept. 19, at Seattle Arts & Lectures.
by Ann Patchett
Harper, 336 pp., $27.99
As a storyteller, Ann Patchett often relies on quirky protagonists (re: “The Magician’s Assistant”), bizarre situations (“Bel Canto”) or both (“State of Wonder”) to probe the hows and whys of human relationships. In her latest novel, “Commonwealth,” she reels things in a bit: The blended family, an American commonplace, is her target of choice, and the characters are regular folks, with traits you may recognize in family and friends, neighbors — or maybe even yourself.
The action starts when lawyer Bert Cousins, a married father of four with a roving eye, crashes a christening party at Fix and Beverly Keating’s place in Southern California. Did I mention that Beverly, mother of two, is a blond beauty? Suffice to say that by party’s end Bert and Beverly have something going, and soon there are six children left in the wake of two broken marriages.
Four girls, two boys, all bound by “one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked their parents. They hated them.”
The author of “Commonwealth” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, at Benaroya Hall as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures literary series. Tickets are $10-$80 — for more information call 206-621-2230 or go to ectures.org.
Summers are the worst. Vacation time turns all the children into cross-country travelers because Bert and Beverly have moved back to his home state of Virginia. This temporarily brings his four nomads and the two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, under the blond beauty’s care. Frantic, she retreats to a book or goes AWOL. Bert, meanwhile, does his usual dance, finding refuge at work or with another woman.
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Against this chaotic backdrop, the tyranny of unintended consequences asserts itself among the band of six: On a routine outing together, one of the children dies.
Tragic as it is, this calamity is a pivot point, part of a larger package, all of it delivered with a sense of irony that extends even to the immediate cause of the child’s death. More important to the novel’s design is what happens later, when the surviving kids are grown. After Franny, the youngest, gets romantically involved with an older writer named Leon, he converts the details of her childhood into a best-selling novel.
Patchett’s intentions here seem twofold. First, with a lightness that numbs the pain, she examines the impact — both short and long-term — on children whose families are chopped up and reconstituted at the whim of self-absorbed parents. Second, as a writer, she probes what lines can be crossed in appropriating other peoples’ stories: What gives Leon the right to rob Franny of not only her youth but also her personal narrative in pursuit of his own fame and fortune?
A whiff of anti-male bias sifts through the air here, suggesting that Patchett has seen her share of self-involved men, capturing their likes in Bert and Leon. Their antidote is Fix, the husband left behind, a cop who has seen enough to take pity on the human condition.
Wisely, Patchett avoids condemning any of her characters. Rather, she identifies with how all parties, including the adults that are collateral damage in the Bert/Beverly union, soldier on amid turmoil and heartbreak. Life is “other things, too, better things,” muses Bert’s ex, Teresa, “but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself.”
Spinning ordinary lives into literary gold requires a mature and confident writer. With “Commonwealth,” Patchett proves she’s up to the task.