Thursday, May 04, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Most of us have wondered at one time or another how our lives may have turned out differently if only one particular event had never happened.  What if we had never met one certain person, or taken a particular class, or had that temporarily crippling accident?  Who might we be today?  How different might our lives have turned out to be?

Ann Patchett explores precisely that question in Commonwealth, her latest novel.  What if deputy district attorney Bert Cousins had not decided to crash a co-worker’s christening party because he couldn’t stand the thought of spending another Saturday at home with his own three children and pregnant wife?  As it happens, two families are torn apart, re-formed as new blended families, and six children grow up barely knowing their fathers.  Would the six children and four adults have been happier and more successful people if Bert Cousins had stayed home that Saturday afternoon?  Patchett doesn’t speculate about that much, but as the next fifty years or so of her story unfold, that question will frequently cross the mind of her readers.

Before the christening party is over, Bert Cousins has not only become attracted to Beverly, his host’s wife, he has shared a sexy kiss with her while holding the woman’s newly christened baby between them - and the die has been cast.  In what seems like no time at all, Bert, Beverly, and Beverly’s two daughters are living in Virginia - and the girls’ father, Bert’s wife, and Bert’s four children have been left behind on their own in Torrance, California. 

The first third or so of Commonwealth, covers the painful aftermath of that Virginia move as the children are forced to cope with summers spent traveling across the country to spend a few weeks with the fathers they otherwise never see.  The children, who are not always particularly crazy about spending time around even their blood-siblings, now have to find ways to put up with the stepbrothers and sisters they seldom see other than on the summer trips.  Beverly, though, may be the person who most dreads the summer visits because she suddenly goes from caring for only two children to being responsible for six – and Bert Cousins is still a man who refuses to spend time around children – his or anyone else’s. 

Ann Patchett
Commonwealth, though, goes on for another fifty years during which Patchett explores the lives of the children from young-adulthood to their own fifties and shows how they were shaped into the relatively responsible adults they now are – a process that included learning to appreciate each other and the blended sets of parents they shared.  Would they have been the same people if Bert Cousins had not been enough of a jerk to crash a baby’s baptismal party to avoid the company of his own children?  Probably not, but when they consider how much they have come to mean to each and think about all the shared experiences that resulted from their changed circumstances, they understand how much they would have otherwise missed out on. 

Bottom Line:  Much of Commonwealth reads like a train wreck you can’t avoid staring at, but in the end, it is – good and bad – all our stories.  We are, after all, what life makes us, and we do not get to choose the circumstances of our childhood.  The childhood Patchett describes in Commonwealth sounds very much like the one she has described for herself over the years.  She has even said that her brothers and sisters were even wilder and more unpredictable than the children portrayed in Commonwealth.  Readers can rest assured that she will likely be mining that childhood for years to come.

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