I absolutely love the work of Ann Patchett, I have read all of her novels and have been waiting anxiously since September to read Commonwealth. As with all of her previous novels, Commonwealth displays her outstanding writing and her gorgeously crafted characters and story lines.
The book follows the lives of two families, the Cousins’ and the Keating’s, starting in the 1960’s and following their ups and downs into the present day. Although in the opening chapters the two families are strangers — both young couples with small children living in Los Angeles — soon an affair between Beverly Keating and Bert Cousins means that their lives will be irrevocably changed and forever linked together.
Flowing seamlessly from one character to another, the book first hears the story narrated by the Cousins and Keating parents, but soon adds in the voices of their blended brood of six children. Moving back and forth from character to character, and back and forth through the five decades that story covers, readers learn of the events that shaped their lives, both collectively and individually.
The story is dark and brooding; focusing almost all of its attention of the struggles and challenges the family endures after the affair dissolves two marriages and reunites the family together through another. Both the adults and the children never fully recover from the shock of the divorces and the subsequent bi-coastal living arrangements. The mistrust and anger the adults feel after Beverly and Bert’s affair never really diminishes and leads to tensions over child custody agreements and shared parenting for the length of the novel. For their part, the six children in the “new” family all grow up with a sense of alienation that results from the dissolution of their core nuclear families and the confusion that stems from their new blended family.
The stress of the new living arrangements — which means that every summer they must care for all six children — leads to increasing tension between Beverly and Bert. When a tragedy strikes, the marriage between the two begins to crumble, throwing everyone’s — particularly the kids — lives into further chaos.
As we approach the 2000’s we find that the Keating and Cousins families are estranged from one another, each struggling with their own complicated (and largely unhappy) lives. When one of the adult children begins an affair with a world famous author and allows him to use the messy, complicated, anger-fueled story of her extended family as the basis for his newest novel; the family is all brought back into one another’s lives and not always in positive ways.
Despite its dark mood and tense plot, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel. Its characters are flawed but real and utterly relatable; its story line about ten people trying to form a family out of a group of strangers will be familiar to many readers; and Patchett’s outstanding writing ties it all together seamlessly. A great — if not uplifting — read.