Commonwealth

February 2017 _ Barbara

Barbara’s Pick
February 2017

Commonwealth
Ann Patchett
Published September 13, 2016

I was already a fan of this author, having read several of her award-winning books, but this book about ill-blended families was even better than I had hoped. The story is told in back and forth fashion over 50 or so years, from the 1960s in California to the present, moving from the Midwest to Brooklyn to Virginia, one of the “commonwealths” in the story.

A la the Brady Bunch: “Here’s the story of the two Keating sisters, Caroline and Franny, and their lovely mother, Beverly, who meet a man named Bert Cousins and his children Cal, Holly, Marjorie, and Albie.” Beverly and Bert actually meet at Franny’s christening, to which the uninvited Bert brings a huge bottle of gin rather than a more-appropriate gift. After a few hours of drinking, Beverly smooches Bert and all hell breaks loose.

After both marriages dissolve, Beverly and Bert move back to his native Virginia to be close to his wealthy parents. The Keating girls live with their mother and stepfather year-round and visit their father, Fix, for two weeks in the summer. The Cousins children spend the school year in California with their mother, Teresa, and the entire summer in Virginia with their stepsisters. Somehow the diverse kids cobble together a relationship, tolerance if not genuine affection.

Caroline is fiercely loyal to her father and treats everyone terribly, especially her sister. Franny just tries to get along. Bert’s kids are no better: Cal bitter, Holly and Marjorie both disengaged, and Albie just the odd little kid who slows everyone down. Cal takes to giving Albie “tic tacs,” which were actually the Benadryl he was always supposed to have on him, to get Albie to sleep and the older kids to have their adventures. Then something goes horribly wrong and the family fractures.

As the children grow up, they have varying ways of dealing with their childhood. Franny drops out of law school and meets a washed-up novelist while waitressing at a swanky Chicago hotel. Eventually they become involved and he turns her childhood stories into a best-selling novel, “Commonwealth.” And again the apple cart is upturned.

Patchett is an elegant writer and gives so much life to these characters. I will be in line to read whatever she writes next.