Commonwealth is a book about how tiny things – an awkward, drunken kiss between strangers; a chance encounter in a bar; a bee sting – can completely change the trajectory of a person’s life.
It begins with the kiss. Married father of four Bert Cousins attends the christening of a colleague’s child, not because they’re close but because he’s trying to escape the tedium of home life for a few hours. There he falls under the spell of his his colleague’s wife, Beverly Keating and after one too many gins he grabs her and steals a kiss, sending both their families on new paths.
It’s the 1960s, but even then free love wasn’t free: their families are still paying the price decades later.
After that fateful moment, the novel follows Bert and Beverly, their spurned spouses Fix and Teresa, and their six children for the next 50 years. They’re all very different people – aimless bookworm Franny; troubled firebug Albie; smart, driven Caroline – but they’re all in some ways defined by that kiss.
Franny emerges as the book’s central character when she meets the famous novelist Leo Posen. She inspires him to write a new book, not as muse but rather as subject: Leo tells a thinly-veiled version of the Cousins-Keating story in an acclaimed novel-within-the-novel called Commonwealth. The book re-opens wounds and forces everyone in the family to confront some difficult truths.
In lesser hands this book would be a bloated mess – so many characters spread across so many years – but Patchett makes it seem breathtakingly effortless, telling an epic family saga in a little over 300 pages.
The prose itself is straightforward but the simplicity is deceptive: Commonwealth is a marvel of complex structure, weaving together themes, characters and plot points with remarkable skill. And throughout it all, Patchett treats her characters with a careful respect that brings them to life like few other writers can.
A very fine novel.