What if? In a fantastic exploration of the implications of a single kiss, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth asks us to consider how our lives become inextricably connected by one event, one relationship, or how this singular event fans out into decades worth of history in a way that makes it impossible to tease out individual threads. Commonwealth tells the story of the Cousins and Keatings families, and the events that unfold as a result of Bert Cousins crashing baby Fanny Keating’s christening party with a bottle of gin. He peripherally knows her father, and attends the event only as a way to avoid his own small children and wife. The gin is an unlikely gift for a christening, a last minute grab on the way out the door, but it is the vehicle that allows Bert to kiss Franny’s mother, Beverly, and kicks off a relationship that forever alters both families. Beverly leaves Fix Keating, her first husband, to marry Bert, and then Bert and Beverly relocate from California to Bert’s native Virginia. There are six children between both families; Caroline and Franny (Frances) Keating, and Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins.
Bert and Beverly’s kiss isn’t the only domino to fall, however, and in the style of something that feels like a Greek tragedy, there is a deeper trauma that finds its way into the lives of these newly bound families. This second event has a further rippling effect, and we spend the rest of the novel equally disturbed by it, visiting each individual person’s story in a nonlinear manner. We get bits and pieces of everyone’s individual lives in a way that slowly helps us put together the details of the time that elapses between our window into each life. In the backdrop of the real story, is a novel written about this family’s drama, penned by Franny’s former lover, Leo, in whom she confides their twisted history. Through this so-called book of fiction, Albie, the youngest of the six, unearths some harsh truths about his childhood which were completely unknown to him.
Albie aside, the book within the book leaves everyone mostly unscathed by its presence, though it raises a key question about ownership. Who owns any particular story or history? Why does everyone else but Albie know his story? Franny tries fairly hard to prevent the book from being made into a movie. Perhaps this makes the book, or the actual history, too real, or too unreal, as the case may be. We don’t get any sense of Franny’s motivation for giving Leo her family history as fodder for a book. As Franny receives no royalties, there is no sense of her selling out, and in some way I suppose Leo becomes a unifying voice for this complicated tale, even if he is seemingly ignorant to the fact that the book he writes is not as fictional of an account as he claims it to be. (The exact contents of the book remain unknown to us.) Perhaps the book and the movie are a reminder that frequently our stories stop becoming our own, or take on a life outside of us. They are open to retelling, reinterpretation, as others claim them.
I liked that Commonwealth is book-ended by interactions of Bert and Franny, beginning at her christening party, as he holds her as a baby, and ending with a secret holiday visit from her, presumably towards the end of his life. We are most privy to Franny’s life and inner dialogue, and perhaps this is because her birth sets this whole drama in motion. Without it, there is no party for Bert to steal away from, no mother to meet and lust after.
The most poignant passage for me came after Albie’s discovery of Leo’s book. We are offered the following commentary:
In retrospect he would say that he knew right from the beginning, maybe the middle of the first chapter, that there was something going on, though everything is clear in retrospect. The nearer truth was that the book had taken hold of him long before he saw himself in it. That was the part that seemed so crazy, how much he had loved the book before he knew what it was about.
It was about two sets of neighbors in Virginia. One couple has been in their house a long time, the other couple has just moved in. They share a driveway. They get along well. They can borrow things from one another, watch each other’s kids. They sit on each other’s decks at night and drink and talk about politics. One of the husbands is a politician. The children—there are six of them altogether—wander in and out of each other’s houses, the girls sleep in one another’s beds. It was easy enough to see where things were going except that it wasn’t so much about the miserable affair. It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.
I too found it difficult not to love Commonwealth, and as so much of this story is focused on people’s attempts to get away from the structure and boundaries of family, initially in Bert, it does seem to be a comment about the impossibility of happiness within these forced dynamics. It makes sense that everyone seems to guard their own responses to life, and minus Franny’s willingness to tell Leo all, no one within the family seems to want to address it with each other. I found both the collective narrative and the individual accounts to be interesting, and any of of the individual stories could have stood alone. Perhaps this is true of any family; we have a collective story, and we have our own individual lives, truths, versions. Family is a Commonwealth.
*Photo credit: Vincent Lim