Its been a long time since I’ve opened a novel and known, immediately, that I wanted to keep reading. Here’s the opening line:
The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.
As a long time John Cheever fan, I sensed right away that I was about to enter the fascinating underworld of American suburbia. I wasn’t wrong. It won’t destroy any of your enjoyment of this excellent story for me to tell you we know nearly everything we need to know about it from the opening line. An innocent, even righteous, event like the christening of a new baby, juxtaposed against the arrival of gin, signals the reader that (1) we’re talking about a family and (2) there is going to be disruption.
Albert Cousins’ arrival does result in the upheaval of two families, and the gist of this book is the examination of how that seemingly innocuous event plays out over the fifty year span of a blended family: four parents, four daughters, two sons. So entwined are the lives of these families that I found myself often having to stop and mentally review the family tree. Which children came from which parents? Which marriage was it? Where were they living, when were they at home or at the “other” home . . . Patchett masterfully forced me, as a reader, to sort through the complicated relationships that ensue when families try to rearrange themselves from “nuclear” to “blended”.
Ron Charles describes this perfectly in his Washington Post review:
Offered only the thinnest exposition and confronted with the details of four parents and six children, you may find yourself grasping for a dramatis personae. Indeed, for many pages, reading “Commonwealth” feels like being somebody’s baffled second husband at a family reunion. Who are all these people? How is he related to her? Whose child is that? Even Franny admits that “she couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”
Frankly, I was relieved to know I wasn’t the only reader who struggled with this.
As I read, I became curious about the title. Why, exactly, was it titled “Commonwealth”? I looked the word up and found one simple and concrete definition –
The people in this story are both sovereign and dependent. While they aren’t always linked by common objectives and interests, their dependencies last all their lives. They are both tied together and wrenched apart by a single, overarching event that colors the lives of each and every one of them.
Patchett reveals this event in small flashes of normal family activity, told from the points of view of more than one of the characters. The story unfolds so subtly that, at first, we miss it’s significance completely. Once we have the full story, we are forced to go back and piece the parts together. This is the way any family tragedy must play out: who knows what, who saw what, who made what decisions. And, then, how does each respond?
This book has turned up on many Best Books of 2016 lists. I, personally, would rank it the best book I’ve read in 2016 – the writing, the various subtexts, the humanity all ring true and have left me thinking about this family and their story ever since I finished the last page.