This book hit home, head and heart for me. Coming to understand Ann Patchett’s (State of Wonder, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage) massive, fictional family in Commonwealth, took longer than usual, but unlike arguing with your uncle about net neutrality, it proved worth it in the end.
Commonwealth begins at a party, and concludes with the incontestable truth that life isn’t always one. From start to finish, Patchett threads out an intricately woven quilt of secrets embedded within the Cousins’ and Keatings’ blended family. This continued thread of lies, suppressed emotion, and harbored guilt is ignited by an affair between the two households, when Beverly ‘Bev’ Keatings and Albert ‘Bert’ Cousins decide to share an illicit kiss during the party. Who knew that a dirty little secret would give way to such generational family drama? Or that it would catapult nearly all the children involved into a lifetime of self-destructive, attention seeking behavior? *cough* I kinda did. *cough* What? Don’t look at me like that, reader. If I came home to an endless tirade of displaced aggression from parents and had virtually no siblings to talk to, I’d probably become a chain-smoker too.
Though captivated by Patchett’s chronology, I found the occasional character descriptors to be distracting, as opposed to intentionally enhancing to the plot. For example, describing a stepson as blank character’s “ex husband’s new wife’s son” was an eyeful to read. However, this was a small tax to pay for Patchett’s skillful way with words and time. Somehow (without too many predictable flashbacks and forwards) she manages to transport her audience in a literary time machine, from the inception of this familial madness in the early 60’s to the bitter end of most of the original Keatings’ party guests, in the early 90’s. With the end of each chapter, there was no question in what direction I was being taken – be it a flash forward to ‘Where Are The Party Guests Now’ or backwards to uncover more sticky, sweet childhood summer memories.
Though at times it felt I was looking at this family through a lens that would not stop rotating to expose more and more characters, I was glad for it. Barely getting any camera time herself, Beverly Keatings’ unhelpfully alcoholic best friend, Wallis, became my favorite with her punchy, down-to-Earth snarkisms. It was fascinating for me – a middle child of a large family – to follow the collective path of an ensemble cast as opposed to the journey of an individual protagonist, and admittedly, it made me think about how I fit into my own ‘bigger picture’.
However, nothing indicates the passage of time as succinctly as death. By the end of the novel, we bid farewell to the majority of the adults sipping their cocktails and dragging on their cigarettes, as they succumb to injury, illness or simply old age. I feel deep in my bones that this book will be made into a film I cannot wait to drag my entire household to go see with me.