Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good book, however I loved Bel Canto by this author so much that I can’t quite forgive Commonwealth for not being as good. My problem, not the book’s. I should have waited another year before reading it.
Commonwealth tells the story of the children of a blended family with six children over a fifty year period. The story starts at the christening of the youngest girl, Franny, when her mother is kissed by an uninvited guest who brought a bottle of gin to the party. This was in the 1960s, so having the words ‘christening’ and ‘gin’ in the same sentence wasn’t as odd as it would be now.
The two adults, Beverly and Bert fell in love and dissolved their families to start a new one with her two children, and his four. The story then follows the children as they grow up together, running wild all summer. Six children are too many for Beverly to manage and Bert takes no responsibility for them at all and tragically, the lack of supervision leads to the death of the eldest boy, Cal.
The children make it clear that their parents fell in love with the idea of escaping their real lives (and for Bert particularly, the responsibility of his children) as much as they fell in love with each other. Their marriage didn’t last either, as Bert eventually played around on Beverly too. They divorced and both went on to third marriages.
As interesting as I found the adult’s story, though, the story of Commonwealth belongs to the children. Beverly’s daughters are Caroline, the aggressive, bossy older sister who leads the pack, and Franny, who floats along, letting life take her where it will. As a twenty-something, Franny falls into a relationship with a much older celebrated author, who hears the story of her childhood and uses it to write a successful novel. Franny tells most of the story, although occasionally the point of view switches to another character. The story isn’t told chronologically, probably because if it had been there would have been nothing for the characters left to discover about themselves later on.
Bert’s children are Cal, who died as a teenager, Holly, who abandons life in the USA to spend her days meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette, who everyone thought was mentally deficient as a child but who turned out to be the most well-adjusted of them all and Albie, the youngest boy whose story was in some ways the saddest of all. Albie was such a painful child that no one could bear to be around him.
Two characters I would like to know more about were Father Joe Mike and Beverly’s sister Bonnie, but I suspect I never will. They go together like gin at a christening.
Ann Patchett’s writing has a feel of Jane Austen to me, in that she (or rather her narrator), is amused by her characters and their lives. I like this style enormously. I liked Commonwealth enormously too, but am going to wait longer before reading another book by this author so that I can enjoy it without comparison to Commonwealth or Bel Canto.