Commonwealth begins with Franny Keating’s christening party; a party involving an uninvited guest, fresh-squeezed orange juice, a gifted bottle of gin, and an extra-marital kiss. This one afternoon will forever change the lives of the Cousins and Keating families. The affair and subsequent marriage of Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating joins together their six children and ex-spouses into a new, complex, blended family. And as everyone knows, families are often messy- full of secrets, feuds, and miscommunications- but can also feature unshakeable bonds.
Although we follow these ten characters over the course of the next forty plus years, this is not a chronological story. Instead, it’s a sliding, kaleidoscopic novel; you think you know the whole picture until a new point of view chapter causes that image to shift and reform. This nonlinear narrative brilliantly mimics the ways in which people share their memories and recount their life stories. It also emphasizes the fleeting nature of time and themes of fate and destiny.
Patchett’s characters are well-developed and three-dimensional. I felt like I got to know each member of the Keating and Cousins families, even those we don’t get to spend much time with. These felt like real people, people whom I grew to love flaws and all. I closed Commonwealth wishing I could’ve had just a little more time with each of them.
I especially loved Franny Keating- a sensitive, slightly lost, people-pleasing bookworm. And ultimately, this is Franny’s story. We begin the book at her christening party; she is the reason these two families are brought into each other’s orbit. It is Franny’s romantic relationship with a famous author that leads to the spilling of long-held family secrets, after he publishes a fictionalized novel based on the Keating/Cousins clan. When that novel is later adapted to the screen, even more of the past is dredged up, and members of the family are brought together.
So much of the novel is imbued with a bittersweet, melancholy feeling. Patchett expertly captures many of life’s stages: carefree childhood, adolescent and post-grad growing pains, mid-life crises, and the decline of old age. She vividly depicts the ever-changing dynamics of a blended family with all its joys and frustrations. There are also tragedies- some small and some cataclysmic. One event in particular drives much of the plot, its repercussions rippling out across the entire novel.
This is the first book by Ann Patchett that I’ve read, and I was completely blown away by her dazzling prose. Halfway through, I had to consciously force myself to slow down in order to prolong my reading experience. There’s just something a bit magical about this book.
Commonwealth is beautifully written and utterly brimming with life. It is one of my favorite reads of the year, and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.