Can the “magic of gin and orange juice” and one kiss change the trajectory of two families’ lives? This is the question Ann Patchett answers in her newest book, “Commonwealth.”
Commonwealth is about two families in the aftermath of the husband from one family (Bert) and the wife from the other family (Beverly) leaving their marriages to wed each other. Shortly thereafter, Bert and Beverly leave Los Angeles and move to Virginia. It is the late 60’s/early 70’s, well before the age of helicopter parenting. The collective six children from the two families are left to entertain themselves during lazy and wild summers in Virgina.
The book goes back and forth in time to tell the stories of the two families, weaving stories of when the children are young between stories of their adulthood. Periodically, it flashes back to a family tragedy that happens during one of the childhood Virginia summers and overshadows the lives of all. As happens in many families, the children grow into adulthood with good memories and some scars.
The book culminates in gatherings – one at the beginning of the book, the christening party at Fix and Beverly’s Los Angeles home for their new baby daughter Frannie. Later in adulthood, Frannie, whose character is one of the most developed in the book, dates a well-known author, Leo Posen. Near the middle of the book, Leo Posen rents an actress’s house in Amagansett and gatherings and events there shape Frannie’s future. The book ends in a Christmas gathering at Beverly’s house in later years. Patchett capitalizes on the power of people getting together and the things that can happen, almost like a scientist would experiment with putting chemical elements together and observing and documenting the ensuing reactions.
The experience of reading Commonwealth for me was like peering over the shoulder of a friend who is flipping through her family’s photograph album. It was like looking at snapshots and listening as a friend points to people and highlights of events that happened over the span of many years of time. It felt realistic, not like a fictional tale that had a neat beginning, middle and end, but a continual narrative of the highs and lows of life.
One thing I liked about this book is that it didn’t focus on the romance of the affair that led to the two fractured families. Beyond that first kiss, nothing was mentioned about how the relationship developed, only the events afterward and the effect it had on the kids.
The story draws out the fact that life is messy, but it is good. It shows that family ties and relationships we hold, whether tenuous or strong, are the fibers of our lives and who we are.
According to the author, Ann Patchett, Commonwealth is the most autobiographical novel she’s written. She said in a recent interview, “Most of the things in this book didn’t actually happen, but the feelings are very close to home. Or, as my mother said, ‘None of it happened and all of it’s true.’”
Commonwealth is an enjoyable read that may make you reflect on some of your own childhood and family dynamics. The book for me was not super engaging, as it is not relatable to my own experiences and it was not plot driven. It was easy to put down and I felt about as much emotion at the end as I did at the middle of the book. I think someone who has had more relatable experiences to the story would find it more engaging.
On a 5 star scale:
General rating: 4 stars
My personal enjoyment rating: 3 stars