We’re All in This Together

Ann Patchett’s new novel is an exploration of the intimate relationships that heal or undo us

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Published:October 15, 2016 12:46 am
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Book- Commonwealth

Author- Ann Patchett

Publisher- Bloomsbury

Pages – 336 

Price-  374

Who would we be if it weren’t for the moorings — or unmoorings — of our family lives? How would we have turned out if our parents had decided differently — chosen another course for our lives or for themselves? Would we have unravelled at the seams, undone by actions we did not fully comprehend, or lived a fuller, more satiated life? Ann Patchett’s poignant new novel, Commonwealth, opens in Torrance, Calif. in the Sixties with a christening party that will change the lives of two families. At this party, deputy DA Albert Cousins will show up uninvited to escape his increasingly large family — three children and a fourth on its way — and meet his host, cop Fix Keating and his ravishing wife, Beverly. Before the party is over, Bert and Beverly would kiss and the boundaries of their lives would dissolve in ways they could never have imagined.

As Bert and Beverly move to Virginia, with Beverly’s daughters Caroline and Franny in tow, and Bert’s children — Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie — as visitors every summer, the six children settle down to an uneasy alliance. “Here was the most remarkable thing about the Keating children and the Cousins children: they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty,” writes Patchett. Over the next five decades, she follows the ebb and flow of their lives, and that of their parents, through distress, divorce, love, hope and the tragic death of one of the children. Patchett’s storytelling is non-linear and often cinematic, cutting across time and throwing out the responses of her characters in a jumble of fragmented memories, half truths, guilt and forgiveness. The effect is often like a sudden rush of adrenaline — breathless, sometimes discombobulating, but never cloying — and hardly, ever without design.

Patchett has always been adept at drawing out relationships. In Bel Canto, her 2001 novel, and one of her finest works, she wrote of the resistance, grace and unlikely camaraderie that are born among strangers in the face of danger. In Commonwealth, that comes three years after her non-fictional This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett holds herself up as a realist. The early chapters of the novel give a relentless and unmitigated vision of the struggles of adult choices — bringing up children, holding a job, learning to make peace with oneself — and the bewilderment of childhood. “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,” she writes.

Patchett deals with this crackling unhappiness with a great deal of compassion. Only time is of essence, she implies, because it allows you the distance and the maturity to look back at your life and understand the choices that broke you down or made you whole again.

And so it is that the Keating and Cousins children shed their anger and come into their own in their adulthood. Franny, the child whose christening party sets off the trail of events, becomes muse to a renowned writer in her 20s. He would go on to write a bestseller based on the stories she shares of her family, and Franny would realise, “It is both a violation and a revelation, a work that has everything to do with her life and nothing at all.” Albie, the youngest child, once the outcast, gets a shot at redemption when he chances upon the book. It hems all of them together in unlikely ways, because, between them, they have a commonwealth of shared history, secrets they never gave up and stories only they can finish, even if a writer appropriates the kernel to use it for his own ends.

It is a clever twist to a tale within a tale — Patchett, who has acknowledged in an interview that the novel has an autobiographical strain, throws open the eternal question posed to writers: how much of a writer’s inspiration is imagination and what part of it is biographical? “All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for.” Commonwealth is a dazzling novel that shows us that the fountainhead of our lives lies in these stories that only we can tell.

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