"The acclaimed, bestselling author--winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize--tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families' lives. One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating's christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny's mother, Beverly--thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them. When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another. Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together"--"Commonwealth is the story of two broken families and the paths their lives take over the course of 40 years, through love and marriage, death and divorce, and a dark secret from childhood that lies underneath it all"--
“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”
A christening party, one Sunday afternoon, in southern California. Copious amounts of gin are consumed, leading to an illicit kiss. This brief encounter, in the kitchen, sets off a chain-reaction, breaking apart two families, and bringing them together again, with pieces missing or askew.
Loosely, based on Patchett's own tumultous childhood, the novel spans five deacades, looking closely at the lives of all six children and the parents. Yes, some are dysfunctional, groping their way to an uncertain future and others are more sure-footed. Unlikely friendships evolve among the siblings and some end up, hopelessly out of reach.
This book caught me by surprise, with it's depth, sense of humor and uncanny insight, into the human condition. And of course, the prose is delicious.
Patchett's work seems to be divisive, among readers, including this one but that leaves me somewhat baffled, because I think she is one of the best American writers working today.
Commonwealth, ambitiously spanning five decades, is the story of how the chance encounter affects the lives of the four adults and the six children involved. The Keating and Cousins children travel back and forth between Los Angeles, which remains home, and Virginia, where they spend summers together. They forge a lasting bond based on their shared experience. When in her twenties, Franny begins dating famous author, Leon Posen, she tells him the story of her siblings and parents (and step-siblings and step-parents), and her family becomes the subject of his new and wildly successful novel. Ultimately, the characters must come to terms with their guilt and their losses, and with the connections they have formed (or not) with one another.
With equal measures of humour and heartache, Patchett expertly reminds us of the power and pull of family ties – despite their fragility. Simultaneously, through Franny’s telling of the Keating/Cousins’ story to Posen – and of its promotion to general publication – she invokes a meditation on the ownership of stories. Wonderful writing, highly recommended!
My impression was that Patchett rushed her writing, almost like she had a publication deadline or something. She could have taken another 75 pages and then, instead of telling me that a character was "the quiet one" or "the bossy one," she could have shown me that, could have made me feel it. Which brings me to my most central reaction to the novel: Patchett had a great story to tell but at no point in the entire novel did she evoke an emotional reaction in me. A novel with a primary LT tag of "family" should make me feel something. This one failed to do so.
I'm giving it 2.5 stars, my rating for "average." It probably deserves more than that.
This is a novel about two ordinary families, tied together by divorce and remarriage, who are messed up in ordinary ways. What makes this book so extraordinary is Patchett's writing, which is so perfect as to fade into invisibleness, never getting in the way of this story, and her compassion and interest in every member of these two families.
Each chapter reads like a short story, complete unto itself, and joined together, the chapters tell the story over several decades, beginning with the christening party where Bert Cousins first meets Beverly Keating, a meeting that will eventually result in six children spending summers together largely unsupervised, not naturally drawn together, but connected by proximity and shared experience in a way that will bond them through their adult lives.
I'm not drawn to family sagas and I'm glad I had no idea what the book was about before beginning, or I would have put off reading it. All I knew, opening the book to the first chapter, was that people were losing their minds over this book. This book is wonderful; that's all you need to know about it before you start. Enjoy.
Ann Patchett at her best!
A Line or Two: "For the vast majority of people on this planet. . . the thing that's going to kill them is already on the inside."
A commonwealth is defined as “a group of sovereign states and their dependencies associated by their own choice and linked with common objectives and interests,” and is a perfect metaphor for the two Keating and four Cousins children. Every summer they come together in Virginia (incidentally, also a Commonwealth), sharing bedrooms, adjusting to different family rules, and enjoying more freedom as a group than they are granted on their own. But this freedom comes at a cost, which has a profound effect on the adult each child becomes.
Much of the story is conveyed through an adult Franny, with chapters told by some of the Cousins children that fill in details Franny either wouldn’t have known or would have experienced very differently. The full picture comes together slowly and in pieces, like working on a “paint by number” project one number at a time. As the novel moves towards its conclusion, the children have become adults, the parents have become elderly, and the children have assumed their inevitable caregiving roles. At this point, Franny reflects on a series of “what ifs” in her life which would have prevented certain bad things from happening. But then she realizes that for every bad thing there was a good thing, which she would not have wanted to live without. This interconnectedness, even in the most dysfunctional of families, was a moving way to connect several threads, deliver emotional impact, and leave me with that satisfied feeling that comes from a very well-written novel.
The party's aftermath includes new marriages and the bringing together of six stepchildren, four girls and two boys. They spent summers together in Virginia with a parent and step-parent, forging on as a group of individuals who find ways to get along and still be themselves. Their adventures exist in a world separated from the grown-ups who forced them together.
They are forced into independence when, for example, one mother disappears for the afternoon by hiding in the car, running the air conditioning and laying down in the back seat. (She realizes that since she's parked in the carport she won't be killing herself.) Or there is the time their parents sequester themselves in one motel room until 2 p.m. while the children hike over to a lake after breaking into the family car to take another fresh bottle of gin and the father's gun. The youngest, Albie, is a constantly moving whirl who drives the others crazy. The oldest boy, Cal, is allergic to bee stings so he carries Benadryl. The kids give Albie "breath mints" that are really the Benadryl, and when he sleeps they play, explore and have adventures without his interference.
The children come to two realizations. The first:
"The six children 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."
The other realization:
"They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.
"It was like that for the rest of the summer. It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren't, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught."
In Ann Patchett's luminous new novel, Commonwealth, the children grow up, find loves and lives of their own, and remember their past. Patchett has a way of making the normal things in life, such as a neighborhood party in which the grown-ups become tipsy, the stuff of legend, the kind of story that helps define a family for itself.
That's befitting considering what happens with one of the children. Franny, the baby whose christening was celebrated, is a reader. She loves losing herself in books and is one of those naturally kind people who can consider the needs of others. Working as a cocktail waitress in a fancy Chicago hotel after law school doesn't click for her, Franny meets an author whose work she has adored. He is one of those older Eastern authors who lives on liquor and the adoration of young women. Leo Posen also is the kind of writer who appropriates what other people tell him. He calls Franny his muse. His novel, Commonwealth, extrapolated from the stories she tells him of those shared childhood summers, becomes a huge bestseller.
Franny feels used after she had been having the time of her life. This becomes even more true when they "escape" to the summer house of a famous actress who wants a role in the film that will surely be made of this novel, and houseguests descend, and one sibling shows up unexpectedly.
As with many contemporary novels, describing the basic outline of the story makes it sound dire. But it's not that kind of story. The older they grow, the more supportive they are, not out of guilt or obligation, but because that's who they are. And they are supportive across the generations and blending of families.
There are some twists, one major tragedy and a lot of redemption. There is an interesting twist on Chekhov's admonition to writers about what happens when a certain object is introduced inn a story. The last sentence of the novel, belonging to Franny, is a delight. Most of the characters have endearing moments, but Franny is a special character. She's pretty much become my grown-up Jo March.
Patchett knows how to make the mundane real and magical. There is one point where magic realism comes in, but it is used to bring peace and solace, which are the hallmarks of the final third of the novel. In other hands, some characters would have blamed others or themselves for things that happened. But these are characters who know that life is to be lived, for its own sake.
The family dynamic is what makes the novel and I get that. it is about the ties and responsibilities family members have to and for each other. It is about neglectfull parents and miserable children . It is framed around a famous writer who turns the stories told to him by his lover Frannie into a successful novel called "Commonwealth".
I really did not like the abrupt ending.
Pritchett puts together a story of families, flawed families, but family nonetheless and very few do it better. Many of the characters are not likable, my favorite being Fix, the cop and father of two of the female children and one of the girls, the grownup Franny. Yet, they are easily recognizable as people who we may know, or know of, their problems ones shared by many. Wonderfully written, moving back and forth between characters, the reader eventually comes to know something about all of them. Still, this is very much Franny's story, she is the one we come to learn about the most.
Like in real life, all do not get a happy ending but getting there, reading about them was a wonderful experience. Reminded me a little of [book:The Children's Crusade|22609396], which I also enjoyed.
ARC from publisher.
Fix is a cop in California, married to the moviestar-beautiful Beverly. They are the parents to two daughters, Caroline and Franny. Franny is just a babe and the center of a christening party when deputy DA Bert Cousins shows up at Fix's door with a bottle of gin. No one knows how Bert's appearance at this party will change the lives of all involved.
Bert and Theresa have three children at the start of their story, with one on the way, eventually finding themselves raising two boys and two girls.
A drunken moment between Bert and Beverly grows into something more, and it destroys two families, but out if it a new one is born. Caroline and Franny live most of the time with their mother and Bert in their new house in Virginia, and in the summer Bert's kids join them. During those long summers in a sleepy town and on family trips, the kids grow to genuinely care for one another. They become true siblings, watching one another's back. Well, all except that darn annoying Albie, the baby of the group, who is the hyperactive sort and drives everyone nuts!
This story follows these kids as they grow up, as their parents grow older, and as these kids begin having kids of their own. The story slowly builds up and then slowly unravels the truth behind what happened one terrible day that bound them all together forever.
My final word: This is a really great story. It's full of rich characters that you really get to know. It's written with sensitivity and humor and compassion, and there is a nice balance that keeps it from getting to heavy. Sometimes there will be a little allusion to something, piquing your interest, and only later in the story shining a light on the matter to more fully explain what happened and how you came to be here. Our book club has come to love this author, and I know that we will be adding this one to our reading list. Well done, Ann Patchett! I feel as if I just left a family reunion and miss everyone already!
But not so much, because then all of a sudden rather far into the book we find out the parents seem to have married yet other spouses.
There were too many characters, some even introduced in the last chapter whom we'd never heard of; too many relationship developments that were never foreshadowed; too many characters that, because there were so many of them and the episodic nature of the book, I didn't care about. And, to pile on even more, there was too much telling not showing.
From any other author it might have been fine. I'm so sorry. It was an okay read, just not up to her usual high standard.
Don't get me wrong, it's very good, I just didn't fall in love the way I thought I might.
Cal dies at an early age; Jeannette marries a man from Africa and lives in Brooklyn; Holly discovers Zin meditation in Switzerland and rarely comes back; Albie, the "black sheep" of the family wonders, both physically and emotionally. Much of the story is told from the perspective of Franny who as a cocktail waitress in Chicago becomes involved in a relationship with Leo Posen, a very famous writer. She tells Leo many of her family's experiences which he takes and develops into a book entitles "Commonwealth." The publicizing of that book brings many dark secrets and causes all those involved to feel violated.
As time goes by and the original four parents are aging, the children find themselves in different roles. Franny and Caroline, always at odds, find a common ground. The marriages and re-marriages of the original parents add to or distract further.
It took a while for this book to grab me, but there is no doubt the writing is excellent and in spite of some very unlikable characters, I found it held my attention to the end.
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 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.
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 just 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 what our childhood will be like. The childhood Patchett describes in Commonwealth is said to be similar to the one she herself experienced. If so, that childhood has all the makings of an enthralling memoir that Patchett will perhaps write in the future.
That happened again last month when I read the novels Did You Ever Have a Family and Commonwealth back-to-back without realizing how similar they are. Both books revolve around a tragedy. In one book it happens in the present and in the other it happened in the past. Both books tell the story from the point of view of many different people who are connected to the story. Both deal with grief, loss, broken marriages, and children whose relationships with their parents are beyond complicated.
They were both excellent novels, but with different strengths. I read Did You Ever Have a Family first, so I think it had a clear advantage. I wasn’t comparing it to anything else while reading it. Once I started Commonwealth I kept thinking back to the plot of the first book. I think Commonwealth was the more beautifully written of the two. I love Patchett’s work. She creates such incredible characters with depth and complex feelings.
Clegg’s novel is centered on the events that happen the night before a wedding. The bride and groom and other family members are killed when a gas explosion destroys their house. The mother-of-the-bride is the only one to survive. We are narrowed in to see the repercussions of one event. We flash back to the past for some context, but the main focus is the ripple effect of the explosion.
In Commonwealth the tragedy isn't revealed until you’re immersed in the novel. It’s less about one big event and more about relationships. An affair kicks off the novel and the main focus is the interactions between two sets of siblings after their parents marry. We get to know the characters through decades of their lives, winding through marriages and deaths, cross-country moves and crappy jobs.
Both are excellent character studies full of regret abandon dreams, sickness, guilt, and all the messiness of life. I love that two very different authors can craft completely unique books that feel similar because of the themes.
BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed both novels, but they are unintentionally tied together in my mind.