“Half of the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”
Last month, Ann Patchett published her 10th book, “Commonwealth”, a story about break-ups and blended families, about regrets and wrong turns, and about family and the forces which bind us. As one of the top contemporary, female, American authors with equal amounts of acclaim and acumen, Patchett is a long-time go-to of mine. I had read and appreciated 6 of Patchett’s previous books, so “Commonwealth” was fated for my ‘to be read’ list.
In “Commonwealth”, Fix Keating is a work-a-day cop in Los Angeles whose uncannily beautiful wife Beverly is kissed by an acquaintance, Bert Cousins, at Keating’s youngest daughter’s christening party. What ensues is the simultaneous dissolution of two marriages and the complicated, always-fraught merger of two families. The Keating girls, Franny and Caroline, are turbulent and troubled, always at each others’ throats and split by competing alliances to their parents. The Cousins crew, too, is a rough and tumble group of angry, escape-seeking children.
Over the course of the novel, various characters get their moment in the sun as the protagonist, though all are expressed through an omnipotent, third-person narrator. Like so many novels of recent publication, the mode of alternating point of view and the employment of flexible, non-linear time, are at the center of this story’s foundation. The consistency of the narrator, despite her inconsistent point of reference, successfully ties the book together as it jumps across time, place, and person. That constant voice eases the reader through each transition with relative ease.
Fix Keating, the cuckold, is a man who ‘rolls with the punches’ and settles deep into his role as a life-long civil servant like he might a beloved, eye-sore of a recliner. Bert Cousins, Fix’s foil in more ways than one, is slick, calculating, and largely absent, more interested in acquiring the prize wife than actually being a husband.
“Bert liked a gun in his briefcase, in the nightstand, in the drawer of his office desk. He like to talk about the criminals he had put away, and how a person never knew, and how he had to protect his family, and how he wasn’t going to let the other guy make the first move, but really it was just that Bert liked guns.”
These men, however, are neither the heroes nor the villains of this story. Nor are the women who are collected and discarded with cyclical ease given much voice nor import. The six collective children, born to the two original couples, lie at the heart of the novel and give it its dose of humanity, with Fanny Keating perhaps surviving as king of the protagonist hill.
Though this books relies on a large cast of characters, many of whom dabble with the role of protagonist, few are truly fleshed out and fewer still feel dynamic and three-dimensional. Bert and Fix are tropes, as are their first (and even their successive) wives. Most of the children are set in their ways, the outtakes of their youth sufficiently predictive of who they become as adults. Their collective lives are marked by two critical and traumatic events – the jarring rearrangement of their families and the unexpected death of one of their own. These two events, both of which happen when the children are very young, serve as the formative memories of everyone’s lives and are the key moments around which this story is built.
Reading “Commonwealth” nudged me to reflect on what seems to be Patchett’s worldview, or at least the recurring theme of her writing – one fateful moment marks the center of so many lives, dictating whom everyone touched by that moment becomes. Is this an argument for fate? A boiling down of human nature to a single, formative stimulus? I don’t know if this is Patchett’s intent, nor, if it is her intent, if it resonates with me. What I do know is that “Commonwealth” had a creative motif and an enjoyable pace. However, while the plot advanced, my connection to and understanding of the characters did not. Too many characters were obscured and abstruse, leaving them ultimately unknowable and, therefore, unmemorable. For me, “Commonwealth” seemed like the movie-version of a book I might have really loved; a fun, fine read and one to which I am unlikely to return.