Spilling Commonwealth's family secrets

Ann Patchett's seventh novel splits marriages and builds families.

Image ALL UNDER THE ORANGE TREES: ‘Commonwealth’ begins under the quiet California sun.HarperCollins

It takes losing control of a story to remind you why it was kept close to heart. This is one of many lessons to learn from Commonwealth, the latest novel by award-winning author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty). Spanning 50 years and two generations, Commonwealth examines two families bound, split, and stitched back together by coincidences and misfortunes. Though it opens with two divorces, Patchett’s latest offers a powerful message about the enduring bonds between loved ones.

Told through a series of anachronistic vignettes, Commonwealth opens with the story of how Albert Cousins and Beverly Keating meet through a christening party and a bottle of gin, linking both of their families in the process. What follows is a jaunt across a half-century of family history, as readers explore the ripples caused by Albert and Beverly’s summer kiss. These ripples soon turn become waves, carrying, pushing, and slamming against the six combined children of the Cousins-Keating family — the focus of the novel. When the six are brought together each summer, they function as a unit: arguing and bumping against one another like any group of siblings, but unified and resistant to the drama of their parents.

The six held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

From page one, Commonwealth is entertaining. The novel’s lighter tone meshes well, and as a result it reads like a series of recounted family stories, flitting from moment to moment as small details remind the narrator of related events. And these stories sound as they should — sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious. A bit dramatic and hard to believe at moments, but told so earnestly that you can only accept them as true. It gives Commonwealth a sense of reality that drives readers to invest themselves in the characters, tugging at their hearts when the novel begins to shine, as the Cousins-Keating children grapple with death, and six become five.

Stories are the fuel that powers Patchett’s narrative, and the surviving children carry the share the story of their sibling’s death, carrying it with them as they split apart in wake of it. The story, kept close to their hearts, becomes a link between them that persists, no matter how distant they become. After decades of being split apart, for example, two of the Cousins-Keating siblings meet in New York by chance, and their shared history allows them to reunite in a chapter that moved me so fiercely that I can recommend Patchett’s novel for it alone.

This bond carries across the anachronism; there is no moment where a Keating-Cousins child cannot reply on another member of their family, even when a close-kept secret becomes all too public, and the siblings’ trust in one another is betrayed. The smallest and greatest crises in the novel are each resolved with the help of family. Dysfunctions be damned, the bonds between the Keating-Cousins children endure, and the presentations of these bonds as timeless and powerful are Commonwealth’s greatest strength.

“’Where were you last night?’ Jeanette would ask, and Albie would think, You missed me.

The primary flaw of Commonwealth lies in its anachronistic narrative, however. Though the plot and narrative are excellent, readers may find themselves lost after the first handful of time-skips, as they are barraged with character introductions and the premises of the ‘critical’ time periods. It balances out in the end, once Patchett has linked enough events and periods together, but when combined with the slower pace of the early chapters, some may need to force their way through a sense of confusion.

Despite these issues, Commonwealth has quickly become one of my favorite books of 2016. It isn’t perfect — but in that sense, it’s exactly like family. Its imperfections give it character, make it unique, and endear readers to it. I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Tues., Sept. 13. HarperCollins. $27.99. 336pp.

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