Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

commonwealthLet’s do a brief exercise together. Imagine that a famous (married) author (whom you are sleeping with) has written a novel called Commonwealth that’s loosely based on your childhood. He’s made everything sound exponentially more tragic than it was. This, of course, earns him best-seller status, the National Book Award and sales “through the roof.” (Wink, nudge.)

Many years later, after your beloved author dies, the book is made into a film. The movie is inaccurate and awful in all the ways you feared it might be. Your 83-year-old ailing father and sister, who see the movie with you, are appalled. You storm out of the theater halfway through, thoroughly disgusted.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, right? Maybe mixed with a little guilt? After all, who spilled all those fodder-worthy stories in the first place while playing naked footsie beneath the sheets?

This conflicted ickiness — and so much more — is the backbone of Ann Patchett’s seventh work of fiction. When I say Commonwealth (Patchett’s, not the author’s) is a certifiable hoot to read, that’s really just an understatement.

The book begins with a house party — and, as Bel Canto fans might recall, Patchett sure knows how to create a maelstrom when she hands her characters booze. The Southern California home in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his “bone-crushingly beautiful” wife, Beverly, whom Patchett later compares to Catherine Deneuve. The couple is celebrating the christening of their second child and younger daughter, Franny.

The gathering is a joyous occasion full of couples “laughing and talking too loud” that quickly goes awry, as parties often do, after Fix innocently steps out to replenish the provisions. It’s exactly then when Bert Cousins, a brashly handsome (uninvited) lawyer, finds himself suddenly alone with Fix’s wife in Franny’s room and plants a wet one on Beverly’s lips.

The kiss sets off a wave of repercussions, none of which are earth-shattering as far as novel plots go, but no less intriguing all the same. Beverly and Bert eventually leave their partners, marry each other, and carry on with their lives in Virginia. The couple’s six kids between them — Beverly’s Franny and Caroline, and Bert’s Cal, Holly, Albie and Jeanette — slog back and forth between their respective parents’ residences, trying to make the best of it, as any casualties of divorce are wont to do.

They do so, that is, until Cal dies. While the fact of his death isn’t necessarily a spoiler, it’s safe to say that Patchett keeps readers guessing about what actually transpired that summer when all the kids were together and alone — and who, if anyone, is really to blame for the accident.

So getting back to our dead author … what does he have to do with any of this?

The genius of the way Patchett approached Commonwealth is that it’s constructed like a puzzle. Each chapter takes place at a different point over the course of 50 years and reveals a section of the ever-expanding family’s story. This way, we don’t find out all the necessary details, nor the real truth of matters, until Patchett is good and ready.

Take the author in our earlier experiment, for example — Leon Posen. In her early 20s and fresh from abandoning law school, Franny meets the 30-plus-years-older Posen at a cocktail bar where she’s working as a waitress. The affair that ensues is the stuff of (publishing industry) tabloid legends: A dashing Saul Bellow-type who hasn’t written a novel for 10 years. A young ingenue turned muse bubbling over with perfect material. Summering in Amagansett. You get the picture.

Or how about Albie, Bert’s youngest boy, who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble — like the time he set fire to his school in California. Or in an early vignette when he, his siblings and step-siblings are hauled off to spend a few weeks of the summer at Bert’s parents’ ranch. He’s such a nuisance that they silently agree to supply him with a handful of Tic Tacs — their word for Benadryl.

With Commonwealth, Patchett covers so much ground and throws in so many engrossing details about Franny, Albie et al, that it’s quite enjoyable just to kick up your feet and go along for the ride — even if it means getting disoriented once in a while. After all, isn’t that what signing on to hear a good yarn is all about? Delicious abandon?

Interest piquing aside, what Patchett also handles deftly are the sections devoted to aging, disappointment and loss. But not without her signature healthy sprinkling of wry humor to soften the bite. Her depiction of Fix riddled with cancer and begging Franny to put him out of his misery (yes, with his gun) is devastating. But the tough-as-nails, almost absurd way he phrases his request? Priceless.

Aside from her recent collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett has mostly chosen to write about subjects somewhat far afield. Scientists in the Amazon (State of Wonder). Opera and hostages in South America (Bel Canto). But with Commonwealth, she sticks closer to home. Maybe it’s another case of the tried-and-true adage: “Write what you know.” Because this book? It’s pure gangbusters.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 8, 2016)

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