Commonwealth by Ann Patchett review – it started with a kiss

A drunken encounter at a christening party is the catalyst for this compelling saga of a dysfunctional Californian stepfamily

Commonwealth is an outstanding novel by Ann Patchett – winner of the Orange prize for Bel Canto and author of State of Wonder – in which two family trees intertwine. It is a story in which nothing is a given and graftings do not always take. Every extended family is happy – and unhappy – in its own way. The opening is a show stopper – an overview of a christening party. To write about any party, you need to be a multitasker. Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway are literature’s showiest party-throwers but this Californian party has form too. Patchett is light, incisive and all-seeing. She keeps dialogue to a minimum and lets actions speak for themselves.

Fix Keating, a cop, is married to a great beauty, the uncalculatedly seductive Beverly: “Strands of yellow hair had come loose from her French twist and were falling into her eyes.” Her baby, for whom the party is ostensibly being thrown, is named Frances. We will get to know “Franny” as she and the novel grow up. But our initial focus is on Bert Cousins, deputy district attorney, who gatecrashes the party because of his need to escape the tedium of toddlers and his tired wife, Teresa, on a Sunday afternoon. The irony of his escaping family life for a christening party needs no underscoring.

Bert finds himself in a suburban Eden where thirst is quenched by gin and oranges (in lieu of Eve’s apple). The fact that Bert should not, by rights, be at the party at all is a further ironic twist of the orange juicer. Patchett is a pleasure to read: there is a no-fuss casualness to the prose that is only possible when a writer is in control of every word and she is master of her art.

When Bert finds himself impulsively kissing Beverly, what neither of them knows is that this is the beginning of the end of their first marriages. Months later, Teresa will gather that she is not to have custody of her children in summer and will feel (though she loves her children keenly) that she has been “handed the divorce equivalent of a Caribbean vacation”. A further irony – or is it boomeranging karma? – is that Bob’s initial toddler-dodging will lead to his seeing more of his own offspring than ever before. Patchett explores, with wry sympathy, the fallout from one, lustful gin-stoked encounter and its far-flung consequences over the decades.

During long summers of neglect, the stepchildren hang out and conspire. Some of the children are more dysfunctional than others. One unsupervised day, they find gin and a gun in the glove compartment of Bert’s car and set off to a lake. Cal, the eldest of Bert’s children, is stung by a bee – a small event with colossal consequences. But Patchett has an even bigger idea waiting to take hold and make this already gripping novel even more compelling. She asks: what happens when real life is exploited in fiction? It is a fascinating question to pose within a novel. For who knows what – or whom – her own fiction might be exploiting as she writes (we have no means of telling). Franny, as an adult, has become a Chicago cocktail waitress, having given up her study of law. Her two criteria: “not to be a lawyer and to keep her clothes on”. The second of these resolves has to be scrapped when she falls in love with Leon Posen, a famous American writer, “somewhere in the dark woods past 50”. He is amusingly and plausibly conjured: singular, quirky and self-deprecating.

After Leon and Franny become lovers, she tells him about her dysfunctional siblings and he helps himself to all of it in a novel that then becomes a huge hit. Literary people do not come out of this novel well. There is a hugely entertaining account of how Frances unwittingly becomes Leon’s unpaid housekeeper as writers come and go from their rented summer villa: narcissistic, ghastly, unappreciative spongers who never lift a finger to help and yet launch conversations beginning: “Why reprint Chekhov… ” while helping themselves to the herbed chicken breast Franny has slavishly produced, before continuing: “Why not have the courage to publish some young Russian writers instead?”

It is only when Albie, the most disturbed of Bert’s sons, finds out that his life has been hijacked and used in a novel that the plot thickens and irredeemably curdles. What is so skilful is the way that Patchett makes no moral judgments. She shows but does not tell. She never preaches. She lets readers reflect on what is involved in stealing from life: emotional copyright is, in this unpushy and brilliant novel, more powerful than anyone dared suppose.

Commonwealth is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). Click here to buy it for £15.57


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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