Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, grabbed me from the first page. Some stories take a while to get into, but this one had me from the opening section of the novel, set at a family christening party. It flows — from character to character and room to room and even house to house — with such visual grace that it’s almost like a movie. Everything is vivid, from the sounds of the party to the scent of the drinks. Patchett is descriptive but not flowery, an author who always seems to know just what needs to be written.
The novel focuses on two families, the Cousins and the Keatings, and their messy association. Stories about dysfunctional families can tend toward cliché; it’s become a rather well-worn device. This isn’t that, a woe-is-me tale of divorce and hostile step-children. The novel surprises at every turn and I rarely knew what would happen next due to its layered characterizations.
I’ll give you the bare minimum: the two families become interwoven by events that are set in motion at an orange-and-gin saturated suburban party. Fix Keating- a police officer in Torrance, California — watches as Bert Cousins, a co-worker who is barely an acquaintance, turns up at his daughter Franny’s christening. This will have a disastrous effect on Fix’s marriage- before the night is through, Bert will kiss Beverly Keating. Bert eventually leaves his own wife and children, and he and Beverly will take the Keating daughters and move to Virginia. Franny is as close as this novel gets to a main character, though the novel regularly follows Bert, Fix, Beverly and others.
The novel shifts very successfully between past and present, covering five decades in the lives of these characters. It’s both funny and poignant, and as I began to reach the last pages of the book I already knew I would miss them. You won’t find a huge overarching plot, it’s just life — just the lives of a number of semi-regular people- and that Patchett can bring such energy and interest to it is a sort of magic. Highly recommended.